Jon Moody, superintendent of Maine School Administrative District 54, on Thursday said the district has had 12 positive cases of COVID-19, but all are tied to incidents that happened outside school buildings. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file

SKOWHEGAN — Maine School Administrative District 54 has recorded 12 positive cases of COVID-19, but none of those have originated inside the district’s schools; all can be tied to incidents that occurred outside of school.

District officials gathered at Skowhegan Area Middle School on Thursday evening to discuss the reopening plan, provide coronavirus updates and discuss other business.

As of Thursday evening, 269 individuals within the school district have been quarantined, and 67 of those are staff. There have been 12 positive cases of COVID-19 since the school year began. Depending on how those cases are looked at, they can be tied to 10 or 11 incidents, Superintendent Jon Moody said. An outbreak investigation has not been opened because the cases do not meet the criteria designated by Maine Department of Education.

“All of those incidents came from outside of school, and we knew where they came from,” Moody said, saying that outdoor gatherings and other meeting places were easily identifiable, some from gatherings where masks were not worn.

So long as it is safe to keep students at school, Moody said the district will proceed with in-person/hybrid learning.

Because of how the district gathers information on these cases, the discussions between administrators and Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention were a little easier, he said. He recently had a phone conversation with Maine CDC to go over how the schools are gathering, verifying and sharing information with the agency. What is hard for families to understand, he said, is that recommendations may change after looking at the information that has been gathered.

“We’ve had situations where we’ve had to quarantine and then the times (of potential exposure) changed,” Moody said.

Right now, the entire sixth grade at Skowhegan Area Middle School is learning remotely after district officials closely monitored a positive case at the school. Like every other case of COVID-19 within the district, the virus was contracted outside of school. After district officials spoke with local health professionals, Maine CDC and families in the district, the decision was made out of an abundance of caution to move the sixth grade to remote learning for the week. Grades seven and eight, also housed at the middle school, have been continuing under the hybrid model.

Moody added that on Tuesday he was contacted about interviews that Maine CDC had with students. After speaking with them, it was determined that the initial date of their quarantine was a day earlier than they were told. But because those students had been sent home to quarantine earlier in the week out of an abundance of caution, it did not raise any major concerns.

“When kids are having to quarantine, it’s incredibly intrusive into that family’s situation,” Moody said. “Especially if the kids are younger, and more if staff is impacted.”

Looking at staffing, he said that when around 67 staff members are home, the cost associated is about $85/$90 a day in substitute teaching time alone.

“There is a tremendous impact there,” Moody said.

He added that staffing might be “the only place that tips us over to close.”

Though there have been 12 cases, an outbreak investigation has not been opened because the cases do not meet all of the outbreak requirements, likely because they come from around 10 separate occurrences.

“If it is safe for kids, I will always push to keep them in school,” Moody said. “We have had Maine CDC, local officials and others tell me it is safer to have them here in a lot of ways, and we’ve heard from Dr. (Nirav) Shah that there has been limited to no community transmission in schools. We know that if we can do it safely, we can keep them here.”

Somerset County was recently designated “yellow” under the Maine Department of Education’s reopening advisory system, meaning there is a moderate level of community risk and schools should consider precautions.

Should the county shift to “red” under the reopening plan, Assistant Superintendent Mark Hatch said that there is a plan in place for remote learning, and each school within the district is preparing families for the possibility.

“We want to make sure all families know what our ‘red’ plan is,” Hatch said. “All parents will receive a hard copy (of the ‘red’ plan) as well as a schedule for their child. It’s just taking a bit of time for teachers to prepare.”

Within the next few days, families will be issued a single-page sheet of remote learning information, should the county designation shift to “red” around the holidays. Prior to going home for the December break, all students will bring home and test their technology to fix any hiccups in case the district has to go fully remote.

Moody suggested that the district not turn snow days into remote learning days, recognizing that teachers and students need a break from hybrid/in-person learning.

“I think we should look at taking snow days this year,” Moody said. “We should allow them to be snow days. We’ve talked about the ability to do remote learning on snow days, but I think we should allow kids to be kids and staff to take a breath.”

The district has four snow days built into the year.

Moody also provided an update on last week’s water issue in Skowhegan, which closed Bloomfield Elementary, Margaret Chase Smith School, North Elementary School, Skowhegan Area Middle School, Skowhegan Area High School, Marti Stevens Learning Center, and Somerset Career & Technical Center. The decision to cancel school last Friday was made late the evening before. Moody classified the day as a snow day for those buildings, and staff were not asked to come in.

“We did the right thing by not having school,” Moody said. “We were able to step up and deliver meals to families, and over the weekend we received communication that we would receive bottled water.”

Schools reopened Monday and the do not drink order was lifted on Tuesday afternoon.

MSAD 54 serves the communities of Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock, Smithfield and Skowhegan.

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