Maine teachers and students returned from an extended holiday break on Monday amid uncertainty over omicron’s spread and some confusion about new guidance issued late last week by the Department of Education.

“Certainly, with some of the changes that just came about in the last few days, we’ll have to see how things go,” said Grace Leavitt, president of the Maine Education Association, the state teachers’ union. “Before the break, there was a high level of exhaustion on the part of just everyone.”

School districts also are bracing for a surge in cases as the fast-spreading omicron variant takes hold. Yarmouth’s superintendent told parents Monday that the district had at least 40 cases of COVID-19 on the first day back in school, compared to a total of 80 cases from September through December. Other districts were conducting pooled testing on Monday, too, and more updates are expected in the coming days.

The biggest change in guidelines for schools shortens the isolation period for people who contract COVID-19 from 10 days to five, a move designed to minimize disruption and keep students in class. For those who are a close contact of an infected person, the recommended quarantine from school and community activities also is shortened to five days. Both the isolation and quarantine periods must be followed by strict mask use for an additional five days.

Federal and state health officials have defended those changes by saying people are far less contagious after five days, while critics point out that it is still possible to spread the disease to others.

Under the new Department of Education guidelines, school districts also now have the option of accepting at-home tests as proof of confirmed cases. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention no longer considers exposure to COVID-19 in an outdoor setting or on a school bus, where the federal government requires masks be worn, as a close contact that requires quarantine. And the Maine CDC will no longer consider three cases to be an “outbreak” at a school and instead will open an investigation when at least 15 percent of students and staff are absent due to illness.


Leavitt said school districts across the state are still in the process of deciding how to implement the new state guidelines, and she expects there to be some confusion in the interim.

“I think the concerns we’re hearing in terms of safety are as high as they’ve ever been,” she said. “We’ve known all along that it’s important for kids to be learning in person, but it needs to be done so that everyone is kept safe.”

Steven Bailey, executive director of Maine School Management Association, which represents school superintendents, said members are concerned about the virus spreading over the next couple weeks.


“I think the changes announced by the DOE provide a bit more leeway on how districts can approach certain things,” he said. “But people are pretty apprehensive about what the next six weeks or so might look like.”

Bailey said one change – not having to contact trace for people who might be exposed on buses – will ease burden on school staff tremendously.


Yarmouth Superintendent Andrew Dolloff wrote to parents on Monday that the district will go along with the new state recommendations on quarantining. He also wrote that the district had at least 40 positive cases of COVID-19 in its schools on Monday alone.

“These numbers are concerning when one considers that we had 48 positive cases during the entire 2020-2021 school year, and fewer than 80 cases this school year prior to vacation week,” Dolloff wrote. “Your continued diligence with vaccinations, boosters, symptom screening and mask-wearing is appreciated.”

More schools are likely to see high numbers of cases this week, as many are participating in pooled testing, which involves combining samples from individuals in a common group setting. As of last month, 416 K-12 schools with 61,879 staff and students were participating in pooled testing statewide, or about 30 percent of all Maine staff and students.

While the fast-spreading omicron variant is taking hold in Maine, other parts of the country where it spread sooner are experiencing dramatic spikes in cases that have disrupted the return to classrooms this week.

As a precautionary measure, many major school districts across the country – including in Cleveland, Atlanta and Milwaukee – either shifted to remote learning this week or delayed their return in order to test students and staff. Other districts that previously hadn’t been requiring masks now are.



Health experts expect cases to continue rising for several days following a holiday season that saw many people travel and gather in groups large and small. On Monday, the seven-day daily case average across the United States rose to more than 315,000 – the highest average of the pandemic – according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 increased to 74,318, up nearly 50 percent from 50,056 hospitalizations on average this time last month.

Cases are rising in Maine as well, but it’s still too early to tell what impact increased transmission will have on schools.

The DOE said last week that it “will continue to engage with school administrators from across the state to gather operational input on further potential changes to the guidance in light of the omicron variant.”

“These potential changes would continue to prioritize in-person learning and help keep children safely in the classroom,” the department said in a news release.

Leavitt said one of the things the MEA will push for is better masks for teachers and staff. Increasingly, public health experts are advising the use of N95 masks over cloth masks, particularly to fight omicron, which is highly transmissible.

“We know that not every district has done universal masking, which is really important to limiting spread,” she said. “But properly fitted masks are part of the equation as well.”

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