Four Maine counties are now designated as “yellow” in the state’s school re-opening advisory system, meaning there is an elevated risk of COVID-19 spread and hybrid instruction is recommended.

In addition to Somerset and Washington counties, which received yellow designations last week, the state has now applied the designation to Knox and Franklin counties. While most schools around Maine are already operating under hybrid models, the yellow designation means schools may take extra steps to limit the number of people in buildings and suspend or cancel sports and extra-curriculars.

Waldo County, which received a yellow designation on Oct. 23, will return to green but is being closely monitored along with Kennebec County. The rest of Maine’s counties remain green, meaning they have a relatively low risk of COVID-19 spread and in-person instruction is possible as long as schools are adhering to safety requirements.

“I’m not an epidemiologist, but I would say given what we’ve seen with community spread and transmission, I would think at least for the immediate future we will have more counties turning from green to yellow,” said John McDonald, superintendent in Rockland-based Regional School Unit 13 in Knox County. “I’ve been following (Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Nirav Shah’s) broadcasts pretty closely and he is indicating COVID transmission is increasing across the state.”

The changes to the state’s color advisory system come as both Knox and Franklin counties have seen increases in new case rates over the past week and have positivity rates above the state average, the Maine Department of Education said in a news release. Positivity refers to the percent of all tests conducted that come back positive.

New case numbers in Somerset and Washington counties are also continuing to climb, with 14-day positivity rates of 4.7 percent and 3.3 percent respectively.

While Cumberland County has a high number of new cases, many of those are part of an outbreak of more than 100 people at the Maine Correctional Center and will have little impact on schools, the education department said. The county’s positivity rate also remains below the state average.

The advisory system for schools takes into account several data points, including recent case rates and positivity rates as well as qualitative factors, such as the presence of outbreaks that could affect school-age children. There is no specific cut-off or formula that mandates a switch in colors.

Decisions on reopening are ultimately left up to local districts. Kelli Deveaux, a spokeswoman for the education department, said in an email Friday that for now the department is focused on regional assessments and the advisory system to help superintendents make decisions.

“While we cannot rule out a situation in which all schools would be advised to consider remote only instruction, we believe that a regional approach is our best strategy for mitigating community transmission in specific areas of our state based on their specific data,” Deveaux said. “We remain hopeful that we will continue to see the relatively low rate of transmission in schools.”

As of Thursday, there were 160 confirmed and probable cases of coronavirus in 97 Maine schools in the last 30 days. There are five open outbreaks, including the Community Regional Charter School in Cornville and Skowhegan; Coastal Ridge Elementary School in York; Madison Area Memorial High School in Madison; Medomak Valley High School in Waldoboro; and Young School in Saco.

Hundreds of students and teachers across the state have had to quarantine in response to cases.

In Five Town Community School District and SAD 28, which serve the Camden and Rockport areas in Knox County, Superintendent Maria Libby said about 100 students at Camden Hills Regional High School just finished a week and a half quarantine after a positive case. The districts are among the few in the state that decided to bring all students back in person this fall with an option to learn remotely.

Libby said about 88 percent of students opted to return in person, but the state’s yellow designation will bring changes. While there is enough space in schools to keep kindergarten through fifth-graders in person five days per week, middle and high school students will be split into two cohorts that will take turns learning in person on a weekly basis.

“Hopefully our parents are understanding because we’ve been one of the few schools since the start of the year to be fully in person,” Libby said. “They’ve had that advantage of having their kids come in person while a lot of the state hasn’t had that opportunity. Hopefully they’ll be able to roll with the punches.”

In Rockland, McDonald said, his district will be moving to a full hybrid model for all students. Elementary school students in pre-K through fifth grades who are currently attending school in person five days per week will attend four days starting next week. Across the district there will be increased efforts to keep students in smaller cohorts, such as limiting the size of groups that eat lunch together or are on playgrounds at the same time.

“We’re definitely preparing for the possibility and certainly we’re ready if we have to go fully virtual,” McDonald said. “We had a lot of practice last year. Will we get to a point where we’re back fully virtual again? I don’t know. I would like to think not, but we’re certainly prepared if we do need to do that.”

In Franklin County, Mt. Blue Regional School District Superintendent Tina Meserve said the district’s high school and technical center both moved to remote learning for two days earlier this week following one case each among students. Meserve said she was not surprised by the county’s yellow designation Friday, citing outbreaks at Franklin Memorial Hospital and the Sandy River Center, a nursing home and rehab center.

“I think we’re all probably prepared for the potential of (having to switch between designations),” Meserve said. “One thing we’ve been talking about here since before school started is we wanted our plans to be able to move from fully in person to hybrid to full remote pretty seamlessly. So we have been preparing our lesson plans and work with students so that if at a minute’s notice we’re told we have to be remote tomorrow, we could do that and still provide an education.”

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