COVID-19 has Agnes Gray Elementary School in West Paris under siege, with surging quarantines and unrelenting positive cases of the virus. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

PARIS — During the 2020-2021 school year Agnes Gray Elementary School in West Paris was largely COVID-free. Few students or staff spent time in quarantine. The school was only closed on one day because of the virus – and that was out of caution rather than an incident that threatened student safety.

Now, that is not the case. Students have been in an out of quarantine. At least two positive cases have been reported on a daily basis, going back to early October, on School Administrative District 17’s COVID-19 online tracking report. As of Monday, 69 students – more than half the school’s population – were in quarantine. There were five confirmed and one probable positive case.

“As of Friday afternoon, fourth grade, sixth grade, and first grade, the before/after school care program (Explorers), and bus transport contact tracing resulted in 69 students identified as close contacts requiring quarantine,” said SAD 17 Superintendent Monica Henson in an email statement on Sunday evening of the situation at Agnes Gray. She wrote that fourth graders were expected to return to school Monday, but as of noon that day the quarantine report still showed 69 students in isolation.

Pooled testing at Agnes Gray started Nov. 17. At that time seven students were enrolled in the program. By the end of last week another five students were added. Henson said that the school did not have any positive results through pooled testing but that many of the students were already in quarantine.

Henson wrote that one classroom had two positive students within a few days of each other, an indicator of in school transmission. SAD 17 Medical Director Kate Herlihy of Western Maine Health is monitoring transmission rates along with the Maine state epidemiologist.

If in school transmission rates exceed that of community spread in all school, with particular emphasis on those in outbreak status, that will determine whether in person learning goes remote. She said that hospitalization rates and staffing capacity are other important factors included with any decision.

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“I will not order a shift to remote unless I am notified by Dr. Herlihy and the Maine CDC that it is necessary,” Henson said. “There is no magic number for the staffing question – it varies from building to building, availability of staff any given day, and availability of substitute teachers.”

SAD 17 has few available substitute teachers to cover for teachers and is short-staffed in every department.

“We’ve been short on custodians all year, and that’s a concern,” Henson said. “It impacts our ability to offer gym space at night, especially at our outlying small elementary schools. One of my biggest concerns has been our school nurse team. They are working extraordinary long hours.”

To help alleviate the strain on the district’s health department, SAD 17’s board of directors have authorized hiring four temporary nurse secretaries to handle pooled testing and conduct contact tracing and other administrative tasks.

The larger schools in the district continue experiencing high quarantine rates and positive cases of the virus. Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School, Oxford Hills Middle School, Guy E. Rowe School and Paris Elementary School accounted for 190 student/staff quarantines and 41 positive cases.

The other four, smaller Waterford Elementary, Otisfield Community School, Hebron Station School and Harrison Elementary schools had a combined 18 in quarantine and two positive cases of the virus.

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Henson provided the guidelines that school principals have shared with the district’s teachers as schools experience virus spikes:

“Teachers are strongly encouraged to offer live synchronous learning opportunities at their discretion in a manner that does not penalize students who are unable to log in live and participate synchronously. Examples include but are not limited to a Morning Meeting, a primary grade classroom story time with the teacher on camera reading a book to the children (which could be recorded and posted for viewing on demand), a small group session on remediating a skill, or a teacher lecture not to exceed ten minutes. Teachers should also provide links to content readily available that is pertinent to the lesson standards, such as the Maine Department of Education Continuity of Learning resource bank. Precorded content can be downloaded onto flash drives and sent with school meal delivery to students without hotspots or good internet access, as can traditional schoolwork paper packets.

“Special education staff will be granted discretion to schedule live online sessions, recorded lessons that can be downloaded onto flash drives and delivered with the school meals, and whatever it takes to ensure that service delivery is disrupted as little as possible.

“If any teacher would like to have help setting up a YouTube Channel, learning more about recording themselves, managing an online discussion board, and other online instructional techniques, I am as always happy to assist. They can reach out to me directly and I’ll schedule Zoom time with them. If they take me up on this, I’ll record the sessions so anyone can play them back if not able to attend live.

“Students can be encouraged to create and submit their own video homework, such as kindergartners counting to 100, singing the ABCs, or older students narrating demonstrations or arguing a persuasive topic. This can be a powerful instructional strategy and isn’t limited to remote-only learning time, by the way.”

 

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