Desks are spaced 6 feet apart in the cafeteria at Gorham Middle School on Monday. The cafeteria now has 75 spaced-apart desks instead of the usual round group tables. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The Mills administration announced sweeping new guidelines Friday for school reopenings in the fall, with a color-coded system to indicate the coronavirus infection risks in each of the 16 counties and a host of health and safety standards – including a requirement that virtually all students and staff wear masks.

The color-coding system will be used to designate whether it is advisable for schools to resume in-person instruction, but districts will make their own reopening decisions. The health and safety standards are requirements that must be met by all schools.

The announcement comes as states across the country are determining how and when to reopen schools for the fall, and as many states are seeing surging case numbers, although Maine’s coronavirus cases remain low.

President Trump has said all schools should fully reopen and he threatened to pull federal funding for those that don’t, but Gov. Janet Mills said Friday that decisions should be made locally and in-person instruction should resume only when it is safe to do so.

“Decisions on how best to return to school will be made in Maine, not in D.C.,” Mills said in a Friday afternoon news conference held online. “Individual districts and communities who know their schools best will, based on the conditions on the ground, decide for themselves how and when to reopen.”

In conjunction with the updated framework and requirements, Mills announced that $165 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding Maine has received will be designated for schools. The funding for schools is in addition to $44 million Maine already received to directly reimburse districts for coronavirus-related expenses, but Mills said more funding will still be needed to fund all the safety requirements.

The three-tiered system released Friday will designate counties as green, yellow or red based on the risk of COVID-19 spread.

• A red county suggests a high risk of COVID-19 spread and means in-person instruction should not be conducted.

• Yellow suggests that the county has an elevated risk of COVID-19 spread and that hybrid models of instruction should be adopted.

• A green county would have relatively low risk of COVID-19 spread and indicate that in-person instruction can resume, although a school district can opt for hybrid instruction if its ability to implement safety precautions are a challenge.

The framework notes, however, that the county designations are advisory and school districts may adopt reopening policies that differ from the county-based designations. Officials noted on Friday that there is no one-size-fits-all approach and even within counties the risk of the virus and conditions can vary.

At the same time, Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said that breaking down risk levels by community or town could encourage people to take the virus less seriously.

“If we’ve learned anything it’s that something appearing in another town or another part of the state can very easily appear,” Shah said. “So we don’t want the level of analysis to be too low because we know school districts are all interconnected across the state.”

The county designations will be posted on the Maine Department of Education’s website July 31 and will be updated regularly after that.

Shah said the determination for risk level will be made using a number of factors that include the number of new cases in the county adjusted for population, testing data and the number of people visiting their health care providers with symptoms of the virus.

While school districts will have the ultimate say on whether they use in-person, remote or hybrid models in the fall, the state also released a list of health and safety precautions it is asking all schools to implement. The ability of schools to implement the safety measures should also be a factor in determining how schools will reopen, the state said.

The requirements fall under six categories: symptom screening before coming to school, physical distancing and facilities, masks and face coverings, hand hygiene, personal protective equipment, and the return to school after illness.

All adults as well as students above the age of 2 must wear masks or face coverings, including on school buses. In addition, adults must maintain 6 feet of distance from others to the extent possible and students must maintain 3 feet of distance between themselves. Students also must maintain 6 feet of distance when eating breakfast and lunch, as they cannot wear masks while eating.

Mills said the state will not be sending police into schools to make sure the rules are enforced, but she expects people to comply.

“We all want our kids to have the most robust education possible and we want to keep our teachers and staff safe,” Mills said. “I think this plan is a good balancing of those considerations and I think people will understand those considerations and agree with them.”

Education Commissioner Pender Makin said the summer will be a good time for parents and students to practice compliance with the requirement for masks to be worn in schools.

“In doing that, the first exposure isn’t something that’s being enforced in a classroom, but rather part of our collective social interaction as a community and a state who are together surviving a pandemic,” Makin said.

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