FARMINGTON — The Mt. Blue school district announced at the school board’s Tuesday, Nov. 23, meeting, that the cumulative amount of COVID-19 cases thus far in the 2021-22 school year has exceeded the total number of cases during the district’s entire 2020-21 school year.

Director of Curriculum Laura Columbia reported this to the board of directors during the board’s bi-monthly COVID reopening-plan check in. During this check in, the board runs through the COVID-19 data in the schools, the county and the state. They then review the current policies put in place and decide whether to maintain or alter them.

As of Friday, Nov. 26, the district has seen 188 cumulative positive cases of COVID-19 in the 2021-22 school year, according to Mt. Blue-district website’s COVID-19 information. In the entire 20-21 school year, 91 people in the district contracted COVID, Columbia told the Franklin Journal. The district was in hybrid-learning mode last year.

Additionally, Columbia said in an email that though the district does “not keep any data regarding transmission,” they can estimate that they “did not see evidence of school spread last year.”

“This year, we are seeing evidence of possible in-school transmission,” she said. “It is very difficult to pinpoint exact transmission locations.”

In the 2021-22 school year, 584 close contacts have subsequently had to quarantine as of Nov. 12. Five-hundred-and-fourteen close contacts have not had to quarantine due to exemptions such as universal masking, getting the COVID-19 vaccine, having contracted COVID-19 within the last 9o days and participation in pool testing.

These numbers are among 1,098 total close contacts in the district, or 38% of the district population, Columbia told the board.

A majority of the cases have come from the Mt. Blue Campus and the middle school with a mostly even spread between the elementary schools.

Columbia shared a chart in the data update comparing the numbers of close contacts, exempt contacts and quarantining contacts. At multiple points, there were more students with exemptions than those that had to quarantine.

She said that higher exemptions than quarantines is “a goal.”

“Whenever I see (more exemptions than quarantines), it gives me a little more hope. And I am hoping that people are taking advantage of the different offerings we have,” Columbia said.

Columbia also updated the board on the COVID-19 data in Franklin County. Maine CDC data shows that Franklin County’s case rate is 975 per 10,000 people and there have been a cumulative 2,915 positive cases (in a population of 29,982)

According to the New York Times’ COVID-19 tracking for Franklin County:

Cases have decreased recently but are still extremely high (with 27 new cases as of Nov. 25). The number of hospitalized Covid patients has risen (by 217% in the last two weeks) in the Franklin County area. Deaths have remained at about the same level. The test positivity rate in Franklin County is very high, suggesting that cases are being significantly undercounted.

As it stands, 1 in 10 people in Franklin County have tested positive for COVID-19.

“Franklin and Somerset counties are struggling right now,” Columbia said.

Chair person Carol Coles said she was “concerned” that these county numbers are rising and that “our hospitals are feeling overwhelmed.”

At the beginning of the meeting, Coles read a letter from former Director Jesse Sillanpaa advocating for “vaccinated people (to) be held to the same standard as unvaccinated people” in regard to quarantining guidelines and testing out of quarantine.

“Quarantine guidelines need to be fair for all students, as vaccinated people can spread and transmit the virus,” Sillanpaa wrote. “Vaccinated people should have to show a negative test before returning unless they are in pool testing. Unvaccinated people should be able to return if they show a negative test at their expense from an outside source, if they aren’t in pool testing.”

During discussion, Columbia clarified that the district is following state and Maine CDC guidelines. The district cannot be less strict than the state guidelines; they can only be equally or more strict, she added. Additionally, testing is not a factor in quarantining, Columbia said.

“At this point you can’t test out of quarantine (if you are a close contact),” Columbia said.

Unless you are participating in pool testing, you can’t test out of quarantine if you are a close contact and have no other exemptions, Columbia said.

Students who fail the health screener and have symptoms (but are not a close contact) are required to stay home from school and RSU 9-sponsored events for 10 days or until they get a negative test from their doctor and symptoms start to improve. This, however, is different from a quarantine, Columbia clarified in a phone interview. Only close contacts have to quarantine.

Ultimately, no students or staff can test out of quarantine or isolation.

Columbia also stressed the importance of participating in pool testing as people gather during the holiday season.

“Especially with the holidays and people gathering — which is wonderful, we want people to be with their families — if you could please encourage anyone you talk to to participate in pool testing, it is simple, easy and its a great way for early detection,” Columbia said.

At this point, 20% of staff and students in the district participate in pool testing, according to the data update.

Columbia said that number is “great . . . not a bad number, but I would love to see more” people participating.

“People are still confused as to what (pool testing) is so we’re trying different ways of talking with people,” she said. “Any word of mouth would be helpful on sharing this resource we have.”

Columbia added that she understood that getting vaccinated is a “family, individual choice,” but that pool testing would “help keep our kids in school.”

During discussion, Director Josh Robbins asked Columbia how the number of in-school transmissions compare to those occurring outside of school.

Columbia said that the district was confident at the beginning of the school year that transmissions were not occurring in school. Now, however, “its getting into the grey line … (and) it’s tricky, because we don’t know what’s happening at home, necessarily,” she said.

“I don’t feel confident saying there are no school transmissions. I feel confident saying it’s much more limited than community transmissions,” she said. “But we are seeing some cases where we’re not sure where the student got it if not school.”

Superintendent Chris Elkington added that there have “likely” been transmissions among younger students in the primary schools “because those would be the only places where the needle would nudge that way.”

Director Libby Kaut asked about the districts’ recent and planned vaccine clinics at the elementary schools. They were held following the FDA’s approval of the COVID-19 vaccine for ages five through 11.

Elkington said about 15% of the student population participated in the clinics.

He said the district, which has partnered with Franklin Community Health Network for multiple clinics, will survey how many more families want to participate in the clinic and set something up in late December or early January.

Though this number is low, Elkington said, the turn out at the vaccine clinics have been higher than in other districts.

“We were one of the first (schools to hold the vaccine clinics),” Columbia added.

Columbia also emphasized that RSU 9 and FCHN have been following a “very strict procedure” to ensure that students have full approval before they are vaccinated and that there are no accidental vaccinations.

Ultimately, the board followed Elkington’s recommendation to maintain the current Mt. Blue COVID-19 guidelines. However, he warned that these policies may need to become stricter as numbers continue to increase in the school and county and as people, classes move indoors for winter.

“Those (Franklin County COVID-19 transmission) numbers are concerning and if they keep going up, up, up, we may probably have to have other conversations about what else we might be able to do,” Elkington said. “But at this time none of the data says to reduce any of the (policies) we have in place.”

The board will review the guidelines again at their Dec. 21 meeting.

CORRECTION: This article should have said that individuals who fail the health screener (but are not a close contact) are not required to quarantine, but are required to stay home from school and RSU 9-sponsored events until they receive a negative COVID-19 test and with improving symptoms. No individuals who are close contacts can test out of quarantine.

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