A southern Maine school district is struggling with coronavirus cases, a situation that the superintendent said should give officials there pause as they consider whether to add more in-person learning this school year.
School Administrative District 51, which includes Cumberland and North Yarmouth, has had 70 coronavirus cases among students and staff since the school year started, including a dozen active cases that date back to Feb. 27. The entire district is designated as being in outbreak status and has been since Jan. 22, Superintendent Jeff Porter said in a letter to the community Monday.
“In our school community, unlike neighboring districts, we are struggling with up to 200 percent more COVID-19 cases, an alarming figure that should cause all of us to pause,” Porter wrote in the letter. “Our entire district is in ‘outbreak’ status due to total case counts and the timing of those counts.”
In an interview Tuesday, Porter said the number of cases in SAD51 to date has far surpassed those in the neighboring districts of Yarmouth and Falmouth. All schools are currently open, although the Mabel I. Wilson School was closed most of last week because of cases.
“We’ve kept our schools open for the most part,” Porter said. “Like most districts, if there’s a school that needs to be closed to in-person we’ll just close that school. So Mabel Wilson was closed Tuesday to Friday last week because we had a lot of staff out because of quarantine, so that’s what closed it.”
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has not definitively said whether any of the cases in the district have resulted from spread within schools, Porter said, but he believes most originated from community transmission.
The recent spate of cases also correspond with the return from February vacation. “We’ve seen this trend after a break,” Porter said. “Usually the first week or two are really heavy after the break, and we’ve definitely seen that. We had similar concerns after the December break and Thanksgiving, but it’s more than just the breaks for us. We’ve seen a steady, continuous pattern of cases throughout the year, really, starting in October.”
Maine’s announcement last week that school staff will be prioritized for vaccinations should help schools stay open in light of case numbers, as it will reduce the number of staff who need to quarantine. Around the state, many districts that have been offering hybrid instruction are considering when and how to add more in-person time.
The rate of cases in Maine schools remains significantly lower than among the general population, though schools are still seeing cases and outbreaks. As of Thursday, there were 488 cases reported among students and staff statewide in the last 30 days and more than 40 schools with open outbreak investigations.
An outbreak investigation is opened after three or more epidemiologically linked cases from different households are detected within a 14-day period and is closed when there has not been a new case associated with the school for 14 days.
In SAD51, Porter said the district’s current case numbers raise questions about the feasibility of adding more in-person instruction before the end of the school year. Other challenges include physical distancing requirements, the timeline for completion of staff vaccinations and the fact that staff who are out on child care leave are likely to be unable to return to work as long as the school districts their children are in also remain in hybrid learning.
“I’ve been pressed by a lot of parents, and I’m a parent too. I know it’s frustrating,” Porter said. “It’s frustrating from a staff perspective too, all of this, but I do think we’re still in this pandemic, and staying the course is really important now.”
Moms drop out of work most in states where kids learn from home