Across central Maine as school districts approach winter break and the halfway point of the school year, students, families and teachers are reflecting on education during the pandemic — who preferred in-person learning over remote, how high are cases and what mitigation strategies have been the most effective.

But it’s difficult to pinpoint which districts handled it best and what strategies were most effective, because the latest COVID-19 case numbers show the number of cases vary district to district, town to town, and even school by school. On the other side, it’s just as difficult to try and say what exactly has caused some schools to have such high numbers of cases.

Officials agree, though, that the recent availability of vaccines to students ages 5 and older is a key moment in keeping school populations safe.

Maine School Administrative District 11 established a coronavirus advisory team to track the state of COVID-19 within the Gardiner-area schools. The team hoped at this point in time to be free of the mask mandate, but at the most recent board meeting this past Thursday, the board voted to both keep the mandate and implement pool testing so students are tested regularly.

As of Friday, the MSAD 11 dashboard for positive COVID-19 cases reflected the district has had a total of 116 student cases and 20 staff cases of COVID-19.

MSAD 11 is not the only district in the Augusta and Waterville areas that has seen a large number of COVID-19 cases within the first couple months of school. As of Nov. 12, Livermore Falls-based Regional School Unit 73 had 161 positive cases among staff and students. In Winthrop Public Schools, data from last week showed there have been 64 cases among students, with 43 of the cases from the Winthrop Grade School alone.

When looking for reasons why many districts are seeing higher numbers of cases in schools compared to last year, officials say there are a variety of factors at play. For one, many schools were in remote or hybrid models last year, limiting the number of students in the classroom at a time. This year, most schools are back full-time, putting more students in school buildings every day of the week.

The delta variant, which is a more contagious mutation of COVID-19 that has fueled the surge of cases in recent months, is another factor in higher case numbers, said Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention spokesperson Robert Long.

“The delta variant is largely to blame for the case increases this year,” Long said in an email. “The dominant strain in Maine since late summer, it is far more transmissible than COVID-19 strains that were infecting Maine people at this time last year.”

COVID-19 rates in Kennebec County and Somerset County are at an all-time high in comparison to the start of the pandemic. Both counties are in the “red” for transmission rates — with case rates per 10,000 people of 980 in Kennebec and 1,068 in Somerset, according to CDC data on Dec. 2. To compare, CDC data from Dec. 2, 2020, indicated 22 confirmed COVID-19 cases that day in Kennebec County and five in Somerset County.

But on the other hand, Long noted that pool testing in schools has likely worked to decrease the number of cases, as it helps schools detect infections and implement quarantining earlier.

Cony High School in Augusta implemented pool testing for its winter athletes and already saw pool testing “prove its worth” within the first few weeks of the season. The Cony boys basketball team played a school where a student likely tested positive while playing the Augusta team, but because Cony participates in pool testing, they were able to have results that showed no one on Cony tested positive for COVID-19. As a result, no one had to quarantine.

Assistant basketball coach Paul Vachon directs a drill Nov. 22 at Cony Middle and High School in Augusta. The Cony boys basketball team played a school where a student likely tested positive while playing the Augusta team, but because Cony participates in pool testing, they were able to have results that showed no one on Cony tested positive for COVID-19. As a result, no one had to quarantine. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Long also said that most of the cases in schools have come from community transmission — meaning the students were not infected at school, but out in the community — although there have been some exceptions.

Similarly, Kelli Deveaux, director of communications at the Maine Department of Education, said in a Nov. 22 email that as cases rise across the state, schools reflect those rising numbers.

“Schools are microcosms of the communities they serve, and as we know, cases are at record high levels statewide,” Deveaux said. “It stands to reason that, even with greater mitigation strategies than that of the general public, schools are likewise seeing increased cases.”

Although vaccines for children ages 5 to 11 have been approved, Long said he can’t speculate about when schools may start to see the impact of vaccinating elementary school-aged children. Many local schools held clinics in mid-November to offer the first Pfizer vaccine shot to such students and second doses to them were offered this past week.

Long emphasized that it is an important step to protect kids in schools.

“The availability of vaccines for ages 5 to 11 presents an opportunity to close off paths of transmission involving individuals in that age range,” Long said. “Children who get their first shot now and their second shot three weeks later, followed by the two weeks required to be fully vaccinated, will be able to return to school after the winter holiday break with far lower risk of getting or transmitting the virus.”

Districts have seen a decrease in their vaccination rates now that children between the ages of 5 to 11 are included in the data. MSAD 11 previously had a vaccination rate of 60%-65% for eligible students, and now the rate sits at 45%-49%, according to data from the Maine CDC.

While many districts strive for optimal masking and social distancing, sometimes outside factors can impact a district’s ability to do that. For example, if a school building is older and has smaller classrooms, it makes it more difficult, if not impossible, to maintain a distance of 3 to 6 feet from other people.

That has been a factor at Maine School Administrative District 49, which serves Albion, Benton, Clinton and Fairfield, said Superintendent Roberta Hersom. The district has several older school buildings with smaller rooms, and that means that when a student gets sick, more students have to quarantine because the distancing was not possible to maintain.

“In cases where 3 feet among students cannot be maintained, students are identified as close contacts if they are within a 3-foot radius of a positive individual,” Hersom said.

School districts are anticipating COVID-19 cases to rise even more as the cold weather and the holiday season approaches.

Although MSAD 11’s board voted to mandate masking for another month, they set a goal to establish a plan for when it’s time to take the masks off. School nurses in the district asked for at least a month in advance to plan to make sure pool testing is in place for when it happens. Factors that would have to be in place to allow mandatory masking to be removed are low transmission rates in Kennebec County and to see a decrease in the number of school cases.

School board member Anthony Veit acknowledge the fact that “no one likes, or wants to wear a mask,” but that masks have been an important tool to keep everyone in the school building safe.

“The mask has been a consistent tool for teachers, as challenging as they are and as gross as they get, a consistent tool to keep schools open,” he said.

Deveaux and Long said that ultimately, the permanent solution will be getting students vaccinated.

“Vaccination is our path to lower case rates and less severe symptoms for those who do contract COVID-19,” Long said. “Pooled testing and vaccination can directly reduce the impact of quarantine for some close contacts, allowing school communities to reduce disruptions in in-person learning.”

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