Students walk to cars and buses at Scarborough High School at the end of the school day on Thursday. Maine superintendents say they hope to be able to continue offering hybrid learning for as long as possible.  Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Coronavirus cases are continuing to rise in Maine and its schools, but several school leaders and the state’s top education official said Thursday they’re committed to offering some in-person learning as long as it’s safe.

The number of coronavirus cases reported in the last 30 days at Maine schools was at 338 on Thursday, though public health and school officials have repeatedly said they’ve seen little evidence of transmission in schools. Statewide cases are also rising, with a new single-day record of 346 cases reported Thursday.

“As much wildfire as we see happening out there with transmission across the community, it is largely not due to school-based transmission,” Maine Education Commissioner Pender Makin said. “It’s community based. It would be not the safest thing to do to close schools down, even though people might be thinking we should close things.”

Maine is now leaving decisions on school reopenings up to individual districts, although the state has a color-coded advisory system to offer recommendations on whether instruction should be remote, hybrid or in-person. The most recent recommendation, issued Nov. 20, lists five of the state’s 16 counties as “yellow,” meaning hybrid instruction is recommended, while the rest are “green,” meaning in-person instruction can take place as long as schools follow health and safety requirements outlined by the state.

Currently two states, Kentucky and West Virginia, as well as the District of Columbia, have full school closures, according to Education Week. Nine other states have partial closures in place, while four states – Florida, Texas, Arkansas and Iowa – have ordered schools open.

Some Maine superintendents said Thursday that while they’ve had to make adjustments, including temporarily closing school buildings in response to cases, they hope to be able to continue offering hybrid learning for as long as possible.

In Old Orchard Beach, RSU 23 Superintendent John Suttie said the district hadn’t reported any coronavirus cases until last Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Since then there have been nine positive cases in the district’s three schools, though none was transmitted in the schools, Suttie said. The elementary and middle schools closed for the week on Monday and he later made the decision to close the high school for Thursday and Friday.

For the last six days, Suttie said his district has been engaged in the time-consuming and difficult work of contact tracing and trying to find substitutes. “The easy thing for me would be to call school off, and then I don’t have to do this work anymore,” he said. “I’m not doing that. Our kids need us and we will return to in-person learning when we can.”

Students leave after a day of school at Portland’s Reiche school Thursday. Maine’s education commissioner said that if health experts said it would be safest to close schools, she would support that decision “in a heartbeat,” but for now the guidance is to stay open with health and safety protocols.  Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

In Cumberland-based SAD 51, Superintendent Jeff Porter said his district plans to stay in “yellow” for the rest of the school year and will try to avoid a fully remote scenario unless it is absolutely necessary.

“It has been disruptive to quarantine groups of students and staff this year, but our students, staff, and families have handled these sudden changes well and we are committed to getting students and staff back to in-person learning as soon as it is safe to do so,” Porter said in an email. “Our continuity of learning plans allows us to continue student learning even when in quarantine situations, which is important.”

In Gray-based School Administrative District 15, Superintendent Craig King said his district is also committed to maintaining in-person learning as long as it’s safe, though the district’s school board on Wednesday did approve updates to its “red” plan in the event schools have to go remote.

King said he tracks the incidence rate in the community, daily cases and absenteeism among students and staff in schools. The week before Thanksgiving, the district closed its high school after quarantines led to staffing shortages.

Chanda Turner, the district’s director of curriculum and staff development, said while staffing remains a concern with trying to keep schools open, the district will continue to prioritize in-person instruction because it is better for students, and guidance received from the Department of Education and the Maine CDC indicates it is safe.

“The guidance we’re getting says from a disease-spreading standpoint closing schools doesn’t do any good if the community isn’t also locked down,” Turner said. “So the purpose of closing in the spring went with a statewide lockdown. For us to close our schools – unless it’s related to a specific instance – if the rest of the community isn’t locking down, they’re telling us it isn’t worth it to close the schools.”

In addition to staffing, schools are also seeing financial challenges, and teachers are facing heavy workloads as they try to juggle teaching remote and in-person cohorts of students. But shutting down schools and going fully remote like the state did in the spring also would come with challenges and could even be less safe, said Makin, the education commissioner.

“For a large chunk of people’s waking hours when they are in a school setting, they know they are in a place that is diligently cleaned, where social distancing is enforced and maintained, and where masks and other mitigation strategies are being implemented,” she said. “That just isn’t the case for people going through their regular day. It would take a full community-wide shutdown or a stop of all the other activities of daily life if we were to shut down schools and say that would be a step that would make people safer.”

Makin said she is continually reviewing guidance from health experts and watching what other states and countries are doing when it comes to keeping schools open or closing buildings. If health experts said it would be safest to close schools, she said she would support that decision “in a heartbeat,” but for now the guidance is to stay open with health and safety protocols.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, has addressed the topic of school openings in several media briefings over the past few months. Robert Long, a CDC spokesman, said Shah was not available for an interview Thursday and pointed a reporter to remarks Shah made about schools at a briefing Nov. 20.

“Schools as we all know are among the most essential elements of our communities,” Shah said. “They play a vital role in every aspect of our lives. Thus far we at the Maine CDC have not seen significant or sustained transmission within schools and that’s a good thing, but that may change as rates of community transmission increase.”

Long did not respond to additional questions sent by email Thursday about whether the CDC has documented any in-school transmissions and whether the agency would ever recommend that schools across the state move again to fully remote instruction.

The CDC and Department of Health and Human Services are both involved in issuing the color-coded advisories on school reopenings and to date have not advised any counties to move to remote instruction. In the past, Shah has said there is no one indicator or specific threshold that would determine if a county moves to a different color designation.

How much in-person instruction to offer and how to offer it has consumed the activities of school boards and staff this fall. In Portland, a debate over how much in-person time to offer high school students stretched out over several weeks. After some parents pushed for more in-person time, plans were made to increase in-person learning, but the superintendent then reversed course following a student petition and staff concerns. Tess Nacelewicz, communications coordinator for Portland schools, said Superintendent Xavier Botana was not available for an interview Thursday.

“We are committed to continuing in-person instruction as long as we can,” Nacelewicz said in a statement. “We have said that unless we feel that we cannot safely provide in-person instruction (for reasons that could include not having sufficient staff to operate our schools if too many staff members have to quarantine), we will continue to do so.”

Grace Leavitt, president of the Maine Education Association, stressed Thursday that it’s now more important than ever for school districts to follow the state’s health and safety requirements if they are going to continue offering in-person instruction. “I think our educators recognize the importance of in-person instruction and how that’s what’s best for kids, but only if it’s safe,” she said.

Heather Canty, a third-grade teacher at Falmouth Elementary School, said she has grown nervous watching cases rise but she still feels safe at school. Trying to teach students in-person and remotely at the same time has been “brutal,” Canty said, but she still believes that a hybrid approach is the best model for her school. With two children of her own at Falmouth Elementary, Canty said she also knows how hard it can be to try and work and have children at home full-time as well as how parents may be wondering how safe it is for their children to be at school.

“I know how hard this is for a lot of families,” Canty said. “No one can come in our building. In the past parents volunteered. They were much more a part of the classroom than they can be right now. I know what’s going on here. I see it and I feel good knowing my kids are here.”

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