AUGUSTA — After a Cony Middle and High School’s coronavirus outbreak earlier this week prompted a move to remote learning until the April vacation break, the principal has decided the school will not follow state recommendations for assigned seating arrangements to help with contact-tracing because it would be “impossible” to maintain the standards and protect student privacy.

Principal Kim Silsby said the Maine Department of Education and the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention changed their guidelines March 31 for schools who follow seating arrangements. She said in a email to the staff this week that seating arrangements seemed like good idea at first, but she now has decided to determine close contacts by in-person cohorts and classes instead.

Meanwhile, the school’s union president said Thursday that the administration should more closely consider how teachers are considered close contacts under this plan and whether there should have been a longer period of remote learning after positive cases were first identified.

Silsby wrote that reasons for the decision were that students not staying in their seats, and in some cases, it’s “impossible” for students to maintain arranged seating. In addition, “seating arrangement notification makes it easier to identify who the student is with COVID, which does not help maintain their privacy,” she wrote.

Silsby said by keeping the strategy of identifying close contacts through the larger groups of cohorts and classes, teachers and staff may end up being identified as close contacts. Now, the Department of Education requires 3 feet of space between each student and 6 feet of space between every student and adult — Silsby said Cony “always maintains” this guideline.

“If a school is going to follow the seating assignment guidelines, then they need to do it in every setting,” Silsby said in an interview. “It’s difficult to do that in certain areas, like physical education or art. In addition, it’s difficult to keep seating assignments when classes go outside or do small group activities.”

Cony Middle and High School currently has 14 positive COVID-19 cases reported to the education department and the CDC, according to Silsby. The school is fully remote through the end of the week and next week, which is April vacation. Sports are set to resume Monday.

The outbreak at Cony follows the statewide trend of rising coronavirus cases. On Thursday for the third day in a row, Maine reported more than 500 coronavirus cases. Around 40% of the state’s population has received their first vaccination.

As of Thursday, there are 179 students and 39 staff members in isolation.

Discussion among staff was less so about seating arrangements and more about being at Cony in-person on Monday, which is when cases started to arise last week, according to Augusta Public School Union President Jan Murphy.

Cases at Cony started to appear April 6 and the school decided to go remote April 13.

“They (staff) were watching numbers uptick in the community as well as the school and were not feeling safe and comfortable with the testing plan,” Murphy said. “Students were out on remote due to quarantine, but close-contact teachers were in the building. Time will tell after vacation if there should have been a longer period for remote learning.”

Murphy said teachers, per CDC guidelines, can continue to come to school if they were in close contact with a COVID-19 case if they take a daily coronavirus test and come back as negative. But teachers still have to quarantine outside of school.

“This is upsetting to teachers,” Murphy said. “They are concerned that parents are not aware that the educator standing in front of their students is a close contact. Staff members are uncomfortable being considered a close contact, yet they are still working with students.”

Silsby said the number of students and staff in isolation is what made the school go fully remote, even though a school in an outbreak status does not have to go remote.

“We were concerned about the number of positive COVID cases, number of students and staff identified as close contact and our ability to safety educate students,” Silsby said, adding that there has been no in-person transfer at Cony.

The method of assigned seating is through the Standard Operating Procedure from the education department, which was revised April 1. “The Maine CDC determines everyone within a classroom to be close contact unless there is assigned seating,” the procedure states.

According to DOE spokesperson Kelli Deveaux, some schools, such as Cony, have had stuck with the method of identifying students from their cohorts and classes, instead of using the state procedure of assigned seating.

“Rather than identifying a smaller group of people as close contacts, determined by a seating chart and proximity, they are sticking with with the more cautious and broad definition used by schools of whole cohorts, which was designed based on the complexity of tracking student movement and interaction all day,” Deveaux said.

Murphy said the school district has done a good job at following CDC guidelines and that it’s been a “team effort” with family members, too.

“Parents have helped follow guidelines and encouraged their children by sending in masks, calling with close contact information and keeping their children home if they have been exposed or not feeling well,” she said.

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