LEWISTON — Staffing shortages, absences and a rise in COVID-19 cases are threatening to close  the city’s public schools.

Superintendent Jake Langlais wrote to the school community Thursday that several schools this week were on their “last threads of the coverage needed to stay open.” All schools have remained open for in-person learning as of Thursday afternoon, but COVID-19 spikes at Farwell, Geiger and McMahon elementary schools, as well as Lewiston Middle School, have left administrators concerned.

“Remote is a last resort as we know and value the teaching and learning dynamic that cannot be simulated through a computer,” Langlais wrote in an email to the Sun Journal.

Nearly 10% of the 945 school staff members were absent Wednesday, according to his message.

“We are seeing spikes in cases squeezing our ability to provide adequate supervision, instruction, busing, or make additional requests of staff for various reasons like many other workplaces,” Langlais wrote, adding that Lewiston schools have “absolutely” had school-based transmissions of COVID-19.

In his letter, Langlais asked the school community for help keeping schools open. Although many challenges are unavoidable, students and staff can mitigate the severity of the district’s problem by signing up for the pooled testing program, getting students who are 5 years and older vaccinated, and following quarantine procedure.

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Participants in the pooled testing program do not have to quarantine if they are in close contact with someone who has tested positive — unless they are symptomatic — which reduces staff and student absences.

“Currently, we are having to send students and staff home who are choosing not to participate in pooled testing,” Langlais wrote. “This places us closer to larger quarantines and potential for school closures. We need more participation from staff and from families for this strategy to work best.”

According to district data, 48% of school staff are signed up for the pooled testing program. Farwell and Geiger schools have the highest percentage of staff participation at 80% and 61%, respectively. Montello Elementary School has the lowest rate with 38% of its 122 staff members signed up.

While keeping students out of quarantine may not improve the staffing shortage, it reduces the burden on teachers to jointly support in-person and quarantined students.

Pooled testing consent forms can be found online or by talking with school staff.

Langlais also asked that students and staff get the COVID-19 vaccine.

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As of Wednesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration recommended children ages 5 to 11 be vaccinated.

Substitute teacher Hodan Ali works with her second grade student Thursday at McMahon Elementary School in Lewiston. Ali is a building substitute, a position created since COVID-19 brought on staffing shortages. Ali is one of four McMahon substitutes. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Students and staff who are vaccinated do not have to quarantine if exposed to a person who tests positive for COVID-19.

“I do not aim to tell anyone how to live nor am I blind to personal situations of exemption,” he said. “I also know that a higher rate of vaccination can help our community to stay healthy and our schools to remain open.”

Langlais additionally addressed poor student behavior, which he said has put “undue stress on students and staff.”

“The impacts of bullying, violence, and disengagement on the wellness of school as a whole cannot be ignored,” he wrote. “Too many lines have been crossed and I am asking families and members of the greater community to talk to students about their responsibility to follow rules, be present and engaged with school, and encourage them to do the right thing every chance they can.”

Langlais said this is the first of a series of letters which will address COVID-19 in the district.

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