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.