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Districts Consider Mask Mandates, Other Precautions After COVID-19 Forces Aroostook County Schools To Go Remote

Chris Bouchard
Aroostook Republican via BDN
Caribou High School students get off the bus on Aug. 14, 2019, for the first day of the school year.

New state data released Tuesday show big differences in COVID-19 vaccination rates for public school students across Maine. Some coastal districts report rates above 95%, while several rural districts have seen fewer than a quarter of their eligible students get the shot.

The new information comes as some schools in Aroostook County are already being forced to go remote because of possible exposures. Districts are now adding more precautions, and more opportunities for kids to get vaccinated, to better protect them in the months ahead.

Caribou High School began classes last Wednesday, making it one of the first districts in the state to reopen this fall. But on Tuesday, district Superintendent Tim Doak sent a message to the community: two COVID-19 cases had been reported, and the school was moving to remote learning through at least next Monday. In nearby Fort Fairfield, the start of the school year was delayed until at least next week because of a positive case.

Doak says that while school leaders were hoping that school would begin in a more normal fashion this fall, the delta variant may challenge reopening plans for schools across the state, particularly when most buildings reopen in a few weeks.

"It makes me a little nervous to see what's going to happen when those schools all go into session, also. We always thought, in Aroostook County, we were somewhat protected because of where we live," Doak says. "But we're not finding that right now. This is already a bigger issue than what we experienced all of last year."

Face coverings had been optional to start the year, but Doak now plans to recommend a mask mandate for the district moving forward. On Wednesday afternoon, district officials in Presque Isle announced their own mask requirement after recording four positive cases since last week.

Doak says with case counts rising, it's going to take masks, better ventilation, distancing and other precautions if families want to keep their kids in school.

"And we're already seeing, in Aroostook County alone, the amount of cases are just mind-boggling," Doak says. "There's not a day that we're not sitting on pins and needles, thinking, ‘When is it going to happen to us?’ Before we get huge spread in our schools, we do need to act on safety."

The situation in Caribou comes despite the district having a relatively high vaccination rate — about 65% of eligible students have had at least one shot. That's nowhere near the 95% rate in some coastal communities, but still higher than in many towns.

And rates even vary along the coast. In the community of Cutler in Washington County, less than 20% of eligible children have received a shot. But up the coast in Machias, where vaccine clinics were held earlier this year, student vaccine rates were above 90%. Scott Porter, the superintendent of AOS 96 in Washington County, says once vaccines are available to younger students, he hopes to offer more clinics in rural areas.

"We know that vaccination is the best way to protect people. We're looking forward to the day when younger students can be vaccinated," he says.

Up north in Houlton, where only about 45% of eligible students have received their shot so far, RSU 29 Superintendent Rick Lyons says he's planning to meet with school staff this week to look at new vaccine opportunities.

Lyons says he believes that a combination of vaccines, distancing, pooled testing and a schoolwide mask mandate can help the district stay open, even with cases on the rise across the state.

"But I think we are in a very solid position, and I think there's a very good attitude towards that," Lyons says. "And I think people have a very positive outlook as we commence the school year on Monday."

In a statement, Maine DOE Spokesperson Kelli Deveaux says that the U.S. CDC and Maine CDC have "clearly recommended that all teachers, school staff, and students wear masks in school" and continue to recommend symptom screening, proper hand hygiene and physical distancing when possible.

Deveaux says when schools adopt universal masking requirements and enroll in the state's pooled testing programs, it will reduce close contacts, limit the risk of transmission, and keep "students safely in classes and schools open for in-person learning 5 days a week."