Maine is giving school districts across the state the OK to offer in-person instruction this fall, though final decisions will be left up to local school districts that in many cases still haven’t said if they will bring all students back to classrooms or if that will happen every day.

The state on Friday released a county-level color-coded advisory system that lists every county in Maine as green, meaning the risk of COVID-19 is relatively low and schools may pursue in-person instruction as long as they are able to implement health and safety measures.

“I want to be clear – these COVID-19 transmission risk designations should not be interpreted as the sole consideration for school districts and superintendents,” Maine Department of Education Commissioner Pender Makin said during a virtual news conference. “A green or lower-risk designation does not mean school districts must return to all in-person classroom instruction.”

All schools must follow health and safety measures required by the Department of Education regardless of their county’s color designation. Those include a requirement for all staff and students ages 5 and up to wear masks as well as adherence to daily symptom checks, social distancing and hand hygiene.

Across the country states and school districts, many of whom are faring worse than Maine in dealing with the coronavirus, are coming up with a variety of plans for reopening schools while facing pressure to bring students back in person and trying to balance that with health and safety concerns.

As of Thursday, five states had ordered some in-person instruction be made available while another five, mostly in areas where the virus has been surging, had state-ordered or recommended school closures in place, according to Education Week. Two states, North Carolina and Virginia, are only allowing hybrid or remote instruction while other states are undecided or have policies that vary by regions or districts.

The three-tiered color-coded system Maine is using classifies counties as either red, yellow or green based on the risk associated with the spread of the virus. Red means the county has a high risk of spread and in-person instruction is not advisable. Yellow means the county has an elevated risk and schools may consider hybrid instruction as a way to reduce the number of people in buildings at any one time.

The classifications, which will be updated every two weeks, are meant as a recommendation, with decisions on school openings ultimately left up to individual districts. The green designation does not mean schools will necessarily bring all students back every day. “We anticipate many school districts will implement some form of a hybrid schedule to minimize the number of people on buses and in classrooms,” Makin said.

Officials at Friday’s news conference said the classifications are being made on a combination of qualitative, quantitative and holistic measures. They include, but are not limited to, recent data on case rates, positivity rates and reports from clinicians about the symptoms they’re seeing in patients, said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Shah said national context and the possibility of outbreaks at places like childcare centers, after-school programs and schools themselves will also be looked at.

“We wanted a high enough level of analysis so school administrators can have a global picture of what’s going on, not just in the zip code their school is in but in the surrounding area,” Shah said. “If we’ve learned anything from COVID-19, it’s that you can’t just take a look at what’s happening on your street, you have to take a broader look.”

Shah said the CDC has been preparing for the possibility of a case being reported at a school or an outbreak at a school. He said the Department of Education and the CDC each will have a point person who will work together to stay informed and respond, but there is no one answer to how a case or outbreak at a school could impact a county designation.

“I can’t speculate how a single case in Piscataquis County might change the entire county’s designation,” he said. “It will depend on what factors we see on the ground.”

Makin said the department is working to secure and distribute personal protective equipment to school districts, and that districts will be working with educators and families who may feel unsafe or have health concerns around returning in-person.

“We will be saying, at least at the state level, that it is not advisable to return to in-person instruction until it is safe to do so,” Makin said. “We wouldn’t set up a situation or be expecting people to send their children into a setting that we wouldn’t send our own children into. So we are working very hard to make sure everyone will feel safe enough to be at school.”

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