SKOWHEGAN — The Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention opened an outbreak investigation Monday into cases of COVID-19 at Skowhegan Area Middle School.

Maine School Administrative District 54 Superintendent Jon Moody wrote Monday afternoon in an email to families the situation among sixth-graders at the school has been classified as an outbreak by state health officials, but the situation has no impact on the school.

Jon Moody, superintendent of Maine School Administrative District 54. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file

Last week, the entire sixth-grade class at Skowhegan Area Middle School studied remotely after district officials monitored a positive case of COVID-19 at the school.

“In the words of the Outbreak Specialist, ‘Your decision to quarantine the affected classrooms was exactly correct,'” Moody wrote. “We discourage disrupting the lives of students who are not actually close contacts.”

News of the outbreak came amid a flurry of additional outbreak investigations across Somerset County, including eight cases at a Bingham area school.

The Maine CDC also confirmed outbreak investigations Monday at Madison Area Memorial High School (three cases), the Church of Faith in Skowhegan (three cases); the Skowhegan-Madison Elks Lodge (five cases) and Somerset Rehabilitation & Living Center in Bingham (three cases).

Statewide, health officials reported 185 new cases Monday as COVID-19 hospitalizations topped 100 for the first time in Maine.

Like every other case of COVID-19 within the Skowhegan-area district, the virus was contracted outside of schools, according to school officials.

After speaking with local health professionals, the Maine CDC and families in the district, school officials decided to move sixth-graders to remote learning for the week. Grades seven and eight, also housed at the middle school, have continued to study under the hybrid model.

Moody said Monday that although school was safe to open last week, as happened for grades seven and eight, the term “outbreak” could be misleading.

“The word ‘outbreak’ is a tough one, especially when you are being told there is no indication of spread and you’ve done everything ‘exactly correct,'” Moody said. “In our meeting this afternoon, Maine CDC explained that MSAD 54’s practices ‘are clearly working to keep students and staff safe.'”

There are three important factors to consider when looking at the outbreak, Moody said:

• The positive cases of COVID-19 in the school were unrelated and no transmission occurred in school.

• Each case was confirmed to have been contracted outside of school.

• The classification of ‘outbreak’ status does not change the district’s approach.

“Please rest assured that each decision we make is done with the well-being of our kids and our community at the forefront of our minds,” Moody said.

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, there is a plan in place for remote learning, and each school within the district is preparing families for the possibility, according to Assistant Superintendent Mark Hatch.

MSAD 54 and Skowhegan Area Middle School serve Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock, Smithfield and Skowhegan.

 

BINGHAM AREA OUTBREAK

The Maine CDC announced during a press briefing recently that among the many new outbreak investigations was one at Upper Kennebec Junior-Senior High School in Bingham, which serves about 90 students.

The school is within School Administrative District 13, which serves Athens, Bingham, Moscow and unorganized territories.

Eight cases were reported by Maine CDC on Friday. Superintendent Sandra MacArthur confirmed that number Monday, saying “more than half” of those cases are among one family. Of the eight cases, five are among students and three are among staff members.

When asked about claims from an employee that masks were not being worn in all classrooms, MacArthur said as far as she knew, protocols were being followed. The district opted to use some of their COVID relief funding to upgrade HVAC systems.

“We’ve been diligent,” MacArthur said. “Our HVAC system was fully upgraded and outside air is being brought in. Beforehand, it was not. I feel that we have been following protocols.”

Before students were sent home for the week for the holiday break, students at Moscow Elementary, which serves prekindergarten through grade four, had been operating in person.

When district officials learned Nov. 10, about the first positive case at Upper Kennebec Junior-Senior High School, students were sent home to work remotely.

The plan is to bring students back Monday, Nov. 30, but MacArthur said this could change, pending new information, but it was too soon to make any decisions.

“We are planning to bring everybody in on Nov. 30, if conditions allow us to do that,” MacArthur said.

She added she was not sure how remote learning was going because staff members have not had time ti “debrief.” but a concern has been getting students online, especially in the more rural areas. Hot spots have been provided to some families, but only work where there is cell phone reception.

“I think we’re working hard trying to meet the needs of students, staff and the community,” MacArthur said. “Our priority is the health and safety of students and staff.

“We are cognizant that it’s a hardship on parents when we are in a remote situation. Many have both parents working and also, we do not have stable internet available for all of our students. We are working hard and I am proud of what we’ve been able to do so far.”

Students learning remotely are equipped with technology. The superintendent said learning packets are being given to families that cannot connect to the internet at home.

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