Jon Moody, superintendent of Maine School Administrative District 54, said on Wednesday that two more positive cases of COVID-19 had been reported, bringing the number of students and staff being asked to quarantine at Skowhegan Area High School to 198. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file

Schools in Madison, Carrabec and Skowhegan-area districts have had to shift to remote learning for the remainder of the week amid staffing concerns following an uptick of COVID-19 cases throughout the county.

The decision to shift to remote learning comes on the heels of the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention reporting more than 500 new cases of COVID-19 throughout the state for the past two days, with 547 cases and four deaths reported Wednesday.

Maine School Administrative District 54 Superintendent Jon Moody reported two additional cases of COVID-19 at Skowhegan Area High School on Wednesday. The recent increase in cases at the high school began last week, resulting in the shift to remote learning last Friday.

By the end of the day Wednesday, the number of students and staff being asked to quarantine at Skowhegan Area High School had increased to 198, with an additional 38 students and 7 staff members added to the list.

“There has been no transmission in school and no reason to believe there’s any transmission in school,” Moody said. “The nurses talk to families every time there is a case, and usually you’ll find out that there’s a clear outside link, either a family member was sick or they had exposure somewhere outside of school. In this instance, all of the positive cases had a clear exposure outside of school.”

“Our priority from the beginning of the pandemic has been to have all students in school every day,” Moody wrote in the letter on Wednesday. “These most recent cases and the impact on those that have had to quarantine is significant.”

As a result of the state changing the protocol for positive cases, the district will be working to reduce the number of individuals having to quarantine by following a strict seating chart protocol throughout the high school. This change will be implemented following spring break that is next week.

Additionally, if any of the schools within the district have to shift to remote learning, schools will follow a regular schedule and not the ‘red’ plan, which was originally designed for a districtwide closure.

Maine School Administrative District 54 serves the towns of Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock, Skowhegan and Smithfield.

In Regional School Unit 74, Superintendent Mike Tracy said that his district shifted to remote learning after a “significant staffing shortage.” Carrabec’s school district serves the towns of Anson, Embden, New Portland, North Anson and Solon.

“I was notified this morning that we just had one too many bus drivers unavailable to drive the bus,” Tracy said. “We’ve had a pretty significant staffing shortage where we were out two more teachers than we had substitutes for tomorrow.”

In Tracy’s letter to the community, he expressed that the shift is not directly related to any COVID-19 case or outbreak within the school district, but instead the increased cases regionally.

“It’s a bugaboo. We’re fighting for more students in schools more of the time. We’re having to respond as we see appropriately due to the circumstances,” Tracy said in a phone call. “I think all of our hopes are that things begin to stabilize over break.”

Next week marks April vacation for schools across the state.

Tracy has been vocal in his push to get students across the district back to in-person learning full-time. On April 7, Tracy told the district’s board of directors that he’s looking to resume the daily schedule, Monday through Friday, with no remote learning options.

In February, Tracy urged the state’s leadership to reconsider social distancing requirements in an effort to get more students back into the classroom full time. Citing several factors that exist within his district, as well as others across the state and country, including the uptick in the number of people affected by drug abuse, food insecurity, mental health and domestic violence, Tracy said that keeping students home is a major concern.

In RSU 59, Superintendent Bonnie Levesque confirmed that because of staffing issues and quarantining, Madison Area Memorial High School students will be learning remotely for the remainder of the week.

Of the total number of cases of COVID-19 reported since the beginning of the pandemic, Somerset County makes up about 2.84% of the reported cases and 3.7% of the 757 deaths. In total, Somerset County has reported 1,573 cases and 28 deaths.

“Like other Maine counties, Somerset County is experiencing widespread community transmission, which is why it remains extremely important for people in Maine to wear masks in public, adhere to physical distancing guidelines, and continue abiding by all COVID-19 safety protocols,” said Robert Long, spokesperson for Maine CDC.

The seven-day daily case average statewide now stands at 385, which is up 219 from two weeks ago and from 176 at this same time last month. Vaccinations have also slowed this week and are expected to continue to slow down as the number of new doses coming to Maine is expected to remain flat.

Staffing has been an issue in schools statewide throughout the pandemic. Reporting from last December reflects districts in southern Maine being forced to shift into remote learning because of similar staffing shortages due to an increasing number of teachers, bus drivers and custodians having to quarantine after potential exposure to the coronavirus.

“From my vantage point, our staff have been rock stars in the way they’ve stepped up to keep things moving forward for our kids and their learning,” Moody said. “That takes so many shapes. Sometimes it’s a teacher reaching out at 7 p.m. to do a study group with kids, sometimes it’s modifying what they were doing to accommodate students.”

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