District will be in remote learning through Monday, Jan, 24

MILO — SAD 41 is among the Maine school districts following the latest standard operating procedure from the Maine Department of Education. An adjustment made in the new year is the reduction in quarantine for COVID-19 positive student and staff cases from 10 to five days if certain criteria is met. Another is schools with universal masking policies in place no longer need to identify close contacts of those who have tested positive.

The MDOE is allowing schools with mandatory masking to stop identifying COVID-19 positive close contacts as the highly contagious omicron variant has proven overwhelming for school nurses.

SAD 41 Assistant Superintendent Darcie Fournier, during a school board meeting held at the Penquis Valley School and over Zoom on Jan. 12, said students and staff who test positive can return to classes after five days of isolation if they are symptom-free or have reduced symptoms. They also need to be fever-free for 24 hours.

The day after the meeting, the district announced that it would be going remote or six days on classes starting on Friday, Jan. 14. Students are scheduled to return to in-person learning on Monday, Jan. 24.

In a message to the community Superintendent Michael Wright said the move to remote status is “due to the rapid increase in COVID cases and sickness throughout our school community population. The spike in cases now is far greater than any other time and thus necessitates this decision to intervene. The remote status will run through next week with an initial plan to return to in person instruction on Jan. 24.”

“The new quarantine exception is because we have universal masking across our system,” Fournier said during the school board meeting. “Students and staff who are close contacts do not have to quarantine.” Fournier said it is recommended that those who are close to positive cases remain at home when not in school.

The assistant superintendent said outdoor and bus exposures are no longer considered close contacts under the new SOP.

Wright said the SOP will likely be amended again over the rest of the current school year.

The most recent policy change comes less than two weeks  after the department released new guidelines allowing students infected with the virus to come back to school faster. The rules will apply to the vast majority of Maine’s school districts, as most have indoor mask requirements.

Schools have commonly used contact tracing as a tool to contain local spread since the beginning of the pandemic. But with the omicron variant spreading person-to-person so easily and quickly, experts have begun to wonder whether contact tracing is an efficient way to fight the current surge.

“Trying to catch omicron by contact tracing is like trying to catch a bullet train on a bicycle,” Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Jan. 12

This variant also appears to spread to others during the early part of an infection. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that those infected with COVID-19 are usually contagious two days before symptoms begin, making quick and effective contact tracing especially challenging, the MDOE said.

“School superintendents have reported that conducting contact tracing in a timely and thorough manner is becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for school personnel given the fast spread of the omicron variant,” the department said in a statement.

The arduous process of contact tracing is commonly done by school nurses, who also usually notify the parents of students who are close contacts. Providing districts the option to suspend the practice will allow staff to dedicate more time to other vital COVID-related tasks, including conducting pooled testing, the education department said. The department encourages districts that have the resources to effectively contact trace to continue to do so.

The SAD 41 School Board approved a staff OSHA policy for COVID-19 vaccination, testing and face covering to comply with a new federal law to go into effect soon. Wright said the law may go partially into effect on Jan. 18 and in full on Feb. 17.

He said the policy will allow the district “to commence with testing for those who chose not to be vaccinated.”

The superintendent said the new policy will continue to be discussed with district employees and the weekly COVID-19 tests for those who do not show proof of vaccination will be done at school.

“We think it would be much less problematic than to have employees take time off to get tested and come back,” he said.

The procedure of multiple readings of policy was waived. “We could be snowed out of a meeting and have the law in place,” Wright said.

“We have had a lot of cases since the beginning of the year. We have had 25 cases since Jan. 1,”  District Nurse Bethany Heal said. She said many of these have come in the previous week, and a number have involved siblings.

“Most feel better by day five and they come back on day six,” Heal said.

“I have given families the option to extend isolation,” she said. “They don’t have to rush back.”

Penquis Valley School Athletic Director Jason Mills said the winter sports teams have been dealing with frequently changing schedules.

“There have been cancellations every day because of COVID in our school and other schools,” Mills said. He said the high school basketball teams have gotten much of the schedule in, with the Patriot girls playing seven games and the boys having taken to the court six times.

He said the middle school boys basketball team has not been as fortunate with positive cases putting the available roster down to just five players. This resulted in the Railroaders opting out of the Penquis League postseason.

Mills said at the start of the basketball season a voucher system was used for fan attendance — spectators needed to wear masks and food and drink is not permitted in the gymnasium. He said the bleachers have not been filled so the voucher system was discontinued.

“Fans are doing a good job following the mask policy,” Mills said,  saying spectators have also been complying with the no food/drink rules.

The athletic director, who also coaches the Penquis boys, said players have complied with mask policies as well. He said the coverings have fallen at times during games, but officials have given leeway to allow players to wait until stoppages in the action to pull their masks up.

Reporter David Marino Jr. of the Bangor Daily News contributed to this story.

GUILFORD — An early step for a proposed regional comprehensive high school concerns the governance of the secondary institution. The first of its kind secondary institution in the state would be a community school district, or CSD, which would need Maine Legislature approval as the Maine Department of Education is no longer approving new CSDs,

SAD 4 Superintendent Kelly MacFadyen told the school board during a meeting at Piscataquis Community Elementary School on Jan. 11 that administrators from the area districts have been meeting with Portland-based attorney Bill Stockmeyer about taking the request for a CSD to the Legislature. She said the proposed legislation will be presented in Augusta by Rep. Paul Stearns, R-Guilford — who is a retired SAD 4 superintendent.

The project involves SAD 4, Dexter-based SAD 46, and SAD 41 of Milo. RSU 64 of Corinth has shown interest but has not taken any formal action. Formal district by district votes on joining the regional high school will be taken in the future.

The Maine DOE defines the CSD as a combination of two or more municipalities and/or districts formed to build, maintain and operate a school building or buildings to educate any or all grades. A CSD may be formed to build and operate a grade 7-12 school for all towns in the CSD. Those same towns will maintain individual control over the education of their K-6 students or belong to a school union. A community school district may also oversee education of all grades K-12.

CSD school committees are apportioned according to the one-person, one-vote principle. The member municipalities share the CSD costs, based on a formula that factors in the number of students in each town and/or state valuation or any combination of either. CSD budgets are approved by a majority of voters present at a district budget meeting followed by approval at referendum.

Representatives from the school districts have been meeting monthly to form a plan to consolidate the three high schools into one regional school to cut down on expenses and to pool resources. Two other attempts — one in the St. John Valley and the other in southern Aroostook County — failed and the state diverted the money to central Maine. The state had offered those districts $100 million and $120 million, respectively, toward a school, but Scott Brown of the MDOE had said there is no fixed amount for the current project.

SAD 4 board member Thelma Regan shared how she was very impressed with Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School in Upton, Massachusetts, after touring the campus last month to see what could be built.

“Everyone was so engaged. Everyone was so excited about what they’re doing,” Regan said. She said the Massachusetts school has an enrollment of about 1,200 — about 300 more than would attend the regional high school from SAD 4, 41, and 46 and RSU 64 — and the facility covers about nine acres.

“Not one kid is lost,” Regan said, saying staff and the outside community, such as automotive businesses, are involved at Blackstone Valley to help with students’ aspirations.

“If we have the opportunity to do something like this I would be so happy because the kid who wants to go to Yale and the kid who wants to work on that diesel truck will both get what they want,” she said.

Piscataquis Community Secondary School Principal John Keane said one student formerly attended a similar institution in Massachusetts, and she would be happy to speak about her experiences.

Board member Art Jette said the selectboard in Cambridge “wanted me to tell you they are all behind it. They see it as the salvation to sustain us.”

“We have to remember we don’t care where it’s built, we care that it’s built,” Board Chairperson Niki Fortier said.

A potential high school location is to be determined once CSD approval is granted and governance is finalized. The regional high school committee would appoint board members from each participating district to oversee the facility. Each district would have the same number of members.

“We felt it was important for the communities, regardless of their size, to know we all have the same representation on that board, and that if there were a question of a tie, that just means … we need to have more discussions and come to some kind of consensus before we move on,” MacFadyen said during a December school board meeting.

The regional high school got the go-ahead from the Maine Department of Education about a year ago.

The group of school districts originally applied for the project in 2017 and was rated third on the Major Capital School Construction Program priority list but moved up after the state scrapped two similar projects in Aroostook County. Now district administrators, principals and others are crafting a plan that draws on lessons learned from attempts in St. John Valley and Houlton and benefits all of the communities involved.

The regional high school would be integrated with a career and technical school along with the University of Maine system and the Maine Community College system, and it would support industry training programs, according to a description on the DOE website.

The state will fund the project, though certain features and customizations to the school would likely need to be funded locally. The school would serve grades 9-16, and potentially offer post-secondary courses to area residents who have already graduated from high school.

The Piscataquis Observer’s Valerie Royzman contributed to this story.