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More Maine schools go remote amid record-setting number of infections

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School Administrative District 51 in Cumberland and North Yarmouth joined a growing list of districts forced into remote learning by COVID-19 on Thursday, the same day the state set a record for the total number of students and staff infected with the coronavirus.

Case numbers published by the Maine Department of Education show that there are a record 6,459 cases of COVID-19 in Maine schools, a 30.6 percent increase over the 4,946 cases reported last week after students and staff returned from winter break. The 6,459 cases surpass the previous record of 6,200 cases reported in mid-December before students went on winter break.

Holiday gatherings and other social events, combined with the rampant spread of the highly contagious omicron variant, appear to have contributed to a surge of infections in Maine and around the country.

Most of the cases reported to the state over the past 30 days seem to be clustered in school districts that are located in the more highly populated coastal and southern Maine regions, a possible indication that a wave of the omicron virus is rushing northward toward rural areas that have been hit hard by the delta variant. State figures show that the Biddeford Middle School reported 75 cases, Bonny Eagle High School had 47 cases, CK Burns Elementary School in Saco had 40 cases, Falmouth Elementary School had 40 cases and Sanford Middle School reported 46 cases.

In addition to a surge in cases, the state reported that there are now eight outbreaks, including at Falmouth, Yarmouth and York high schools. The Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention opens an outbreak investigation if 15 percent or more of a school's population - students and staff included - is absent because of COVID.

SAD 51 Superintendent Jeffrey Porter notified the school community on Thursday that the district would have to go to remote learning on Friday, with the goal to return to in-person learning Tuesday, after the Martin Luther King holiday on Monday.

CHALLENGING WEEK FOR MSAD 51

"This has been a challenging week for MSAD 51 schools. We have had serious staffing shortages most of the week, with about 15 percent of our staff out due to illness each day," Porter said. "We also have had large numbers of students absent from school this week - between 160-215 students out daily, with the highest absence today. Many thanks to our teachers, support staff and administrators who have stepped up repeatedly to cover classrooms and duties in order to keep our schools open this week."

"Additionally, we have experienced a large number of positive COVID cases over the last seven days. With 35 positive pools returned just today from this week's pooled testing, and another 140 cases reported since last Thursday, we have had 175 positive cases in our schools in a very short period of time, most of which are still active," Porter said. "The high number of positive cases, combined with student absences and continued staffing shortages expected on Friday, leaves me no choice but to place all schools in RED on Friday, January 14."

Meanwhile, other schools in the southern part of Maine are reporting high numbers of COVID cases among students and staff.

In Westbrook, the Saccarappa Elementary School with 21 cases and Westbrook Middle School with 37 cases went to remote learning on Tuesday and will remain remote at least through Friday. All other schools in the district will remain open for in-person learning, the Westbrook School Department said.

Sanford Middle School and Sanford High School are reporting a high number of COVID cases, with 46 and 33, respectively, according to case counts provided to the state. Sanford Pride Elementary School reported 17 cases. Sanford Superintendent Matt Nelson posted a message Thursday on the district's website that said the middle school is in the midst of a COVID outbreak. Nelson gave no indication that the district would go to remote learning.

Several other southern Maine school districts went into remote learning this week. They included some of the schools in Biddeford, Saco, Kennebunk, Brunswick, Gorham, Scarborough, Windham and Portland.

GUIDELINES REVISED

The Maine Department of Education announced Wednesday that the Maine CDC revised its COVID-19 guidelines to allow schools that enforce a universal masking policy to suspend contact tracing.

"While the goal of contact tracing is to provide a timely notification to all individuals who may have been exposed to COVID-19, school superintendents have reported that conducting contact tracing in a timely and thorough manner is becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for school personnel given the fast spread of the omicron variant," the department said in a news release.

Schools that have the staffing resources to do contact tracing effectively are being encouraged to continue those efforts.

The York School Department announced Thursday that it will take advantage of the new Maine CDC guidelines. Superintendent Lou Goscinski notified the school community that York schools will return to in-person instruction on Tuesday.

"Based on information received from the Maine CDC, the COVID-19 omicron variant is far more contagious than prior COVID-19 variants, has a short incubation period and tends to spread in the early part of an infection. Omicron is spreading more quickly than contacts can be traced. Contact tracing for this variant is ineffective," Goscinski said. The superintendent said the district will no longer notify families of close contact, but will continue to report positive case totals on the school department's dashboard.

"We welcome today's guidance, which provides some relief to school staff, especially our nurses, who have continued to exceed safety protocols with extensive and labor intensive contact tracing and notification efforts," Eileen King, executive director of the Maine School Superintendents Association, said in a statement. "Schools with universal masking policies in place for all indoor school-sponsored activities will be able to shift their time and attention to other strategies that ensure the physical and emotional health and safety of staff and students."

As of Wednesday, 51.5 percent of children ages 5 to 19 in Maine were fully vaccinated, according to Maine CDC data.

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