As Lincoln County schools approach the three-month mark of the 2021-22 school year, they are putting to use the hard lessons from the previous 18 months of COVID-19 and looking to new strategies to ensure that students have the best opportunity for learning.
Vaccination rates among faculty and staff continue to rise, and with the recent approval of vaccines for children 5-11, the percentage of the student population who are vaccinated may significantly reduce infection rates and potentially limit the necessity for quarantines.
Masking and social distancing policies are firmly in place in most schools. COVID relief funds have been used to improve ventilation and to fund interventionist teachers who can respond to students who need additional help to catch up on missed learning opportunities.
Newer strategies such as pool testing or “test-to-stay” protocols are being used or considered by schools as another tool to combat the impact of the virus on student learning.
According to the Federal Drug Administration, pool testing involves mixing samples together in a “batch” or pooled sample for testing thereby increasing the number of individuals that can be tested using the same amount of resources.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention describes “test-to-stay” protocols as including regular testing and contact tracing to allow close contacts to remain in the classroom, while maintaining other layered prevention strategies to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Regional School Unit 40 has implemented pool testing at Miller School, Medomak Middle School, and Medomak Valley High School starting in October with at least two cases identified at MVHS using the process.
Great Salt Bay is the only school in AOS 93 with immediate plans to move forward on pool testing, according to AOS 93 Superintendent Craig Jurgensen. The GSB School Committee approved the implementation of voluntary pooled COVID-19 testing for students and staff on Oct. 13.
The Bristol Consolidated School Committee approved individual BinaxNOW testing for COVID-19 on Oct. 6. BinaxNOW tests can provide results in 15 minutes. Their use is determined by the school nurse and they are administered based on symptoms that may be indicative of the COVID-19 virus.
Wiscasset schools also began pool testing on Oct. 5, according to school nurse Marilyn Sprague as previously reported in The Lincoln County News.
According to the Wildcat Weekly Whitefield Elementary School newsletter of Oct. 7, RSU 12 will also be participating in pool testing.
In a Sept. 23 email Superintendent Steve Nolan said that RSU 40 “continue(s) to work to follow the U.S. CDC Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in K-12 Schools.
Masks are required indoors when transmission rates are “substantial” or “high” in Lincoln or Knox counties as reported by the U.S. CDC at its COVID-19 Integrated County View site.
“Vaccinations are encouraged as the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic, but they are not required for students or staff at this time. We continue to offer a remote learning option, although participation in remote learning is significantly lower than last school year,” Nolan said.
RSU 40 schools located in Lincoln County showed increases in cases of COVID-19 from September to the most current reporting update of Nov. 16. The Miller School reported two cases in September and 14 cases as of Nov. 21. Medomak Middle School reported one case in September and now lists eight cases. Medomak Valley High School reported six cases in September and 26 cases as of Nov. 21.
According to a Nov. 22 email from Nolan, “Medomak Middle School and Medomak Valley High School have reached outbreak status and continue to be monitored for in-school transmission by Maine CDC staff.”
For the 2021-22 school year, the U.S. CDC recommended that high-risk sports and extracurricular activities be virtual or canceled in areas of high community transmission unless all participants are fully vaccinated, but in a nod to community members present during a Sept. 9 school board meeting, Nolan did not move to cancel extracurriculars or to limit participation at RSU 40 schools.
In the Nov. 22 email, Nolan attached RSU 40’s current Indoor Sports/Performing Arts Guidelines, but said they may change based on updated guidance from the Maine Principals’ Association.
Key guidelines include the following: Masks for athletes and performers are not required during indoor activities if students are fully vaccinated or participating in pool testing, but are required by spectators; food and drink are prohibited in areas where activities are taking place, unless the venue is outdoors; masking for all participants and spectators is optional for all outdoor events; there is a limit of four spectators per athlete for athletic events and spectators from visiting teams are not allowed; COVID-19 vaccination and participation in pooled testing are highly recommended to reduce serious illness or the spread of the virus and to limit the number of required quarantine individuals on the team due to close contact.
In the Wiscasset School District, Superintendent Terry Wood sends out regular COVID-19 updates as new cases are identified. Both Wiscasset Elementary School and Wiscasset Middle-High School transitioned temporarily to remote learning in November in response to increased cases of the virus.
The Wiscasset Elementary School scheduled two vaccine clinics for children 5-11, but the first one had to be rescheduled due to the necessity for remote learning.
AOS 93 was forced to respond to COVID-19 cases from early on in the school year. In a Sept. 23 email Jurgensen said, “From our first day of the 2021-2022 school year, our focus was on trying to normalize day to day activities and interactions. Unfortunately, we had to respond to the serious challenges of COVID infections much sooner than anticipated.”
As of Nov. 16, all AOS 93 schools, except South Bristol, have responded to positive COVID cases. Both GSB and JVS were identified to be in outbreak status in September and Great Salt Bay transitioned to full remote learning for all students from Sept. 16-27 with 13 positive cases across grades K-8 (staff and students).
JVS has also had to shift to remote learning as recently as Nov. 22.
Jurgensen said staff and students have been quarantined and “many after school activities and sports have been canceled due to outbreaks” since the start of school. An outbreak is defined as the identification of at least three positive cases originating in different households.
According to Jurgensen, “The response to each positive COVID case is complex and time consuming. Close contacts have to be determined; the CDC, parents, and the school community must all be notified.”
Jurgensen said that when quarantine is indicated, teacher(s) and students need to shift to remote instruction, and the school has to arrange for the availability of computers and other instructional materials, as well as for the delivery of school meals to quarantined students.
“The decision to move from in person to remote instruction is informed by many factors,” Jurgensen said. “Knowing the impact on family routines and expectations for in-person school, the transition to remote learning is the option of last resort. Ultimately, the decision is made so that there is the least disruption to student learning but the greatest protection of student and staff safety.”
Voluntary vaccine clinics for students age 5-11 are scheduled for all five schools in the AOS 93 district. GSB and NCS have already administered the first dose to students who were signed up.
Lincoln Academy in Newcastle saw six cases of COVID-19 in the first week of school.
“We all got caught by surprise by the delta variant,” said Head of School Jeff Burroughs.
After the vaccine rollout to students 12 and up in the spring and a summer with no reported cases among Lincoln Academy students, there was a sense of optimism so “the shock of going into outbreak status right away was pretty tough on people.”
Burroughs said the focus has shifted from protecting older individuals, many of whom are now vaccinated, to protecting school-age children and the challenge is to figure out “how do we work together as a community to keep moving forward – we want to have kids in school.”
Burroughs said winter is a tough time in general for schools and while he sees the increase in community vaccination rates as a positive, he remains concerned about the possibility of increased cases after Thanksgiving.
“If history is any indication, every time we bring the community back together we see a surge or uptick,” he said.
Still, Burroughs believes that people in education are hopeful by nature and he said that seeing the kids helping, doing what’s asked of them is what inspires him to remain hopeful.
According to Jenny Mayher, director of communications at Lincoln Academy, there have been a total of 21 positive cases from September to November this year, including some that may have been breakthrough infections.
With most cases having clear evidence of coming in from the outside, Mayher said there has been “no evidence of in-school spread. Universal masking and (the) vaccination rate seems to be helping keep our numbers low.”
Mayher reported that 96% of the faculty/staff and approximately 80% of students are vaccinated as of Nov. 15.
Dorm students are tested every week and pool testing is on the horizon. Rapid testing is available at the health center on a case-by-case basis for symptomatic individuals.
Mayher said Burroughs plans to test everyone who is participating in indoor extracurricular activities including sports and theater.
While fall athletes did not have to wear masks when practicing or playing outdoors, Lincoln Academy is still waiting for specific guidelines from the Maine Principals’ Association to set final protocols for winter sports.
Mayher said that while policies are subject to change, at this point all sports but indoor track will take place and athletes will be masked (except swimmers while in the pool). A limited number of spectators will be allowed at events in the gym, and masks will be required. An outdoor running club will stand in for indoor track.
Mayher said, “Daily health screenings have made a huge difference. We rely on parents to keep students home when they are sick, and this has really helped keep our cases low.”
Mayher said there has been a big change in the number of students on campus compared to the last school year. “In 2020-21, we had about 530 students enrolled, with 70 of those entirely remote, and only half of the hybrid students on campus at a time: about 230 students max on any given day. In 2021-22 we have a significant increase in enrollment from 530 to over 580, no remote students, and everyone on campus 5 days a week.”
Lincoln Academy closed proactively between Thanksgiving 2020 and Jan. 10, 2021, in response to a spike in cases in the region. The only other campus closure occurred when the school was determined to be in outbreak status in March and April 2021.
According to Lincoln Academy school nurse Eric Duffy, “Our rates of vaccination and breakthrough cases are consistent with LincolnHealth’s stats. We do have evidence of community spread; no simple sore throat is just a simple sore throat anymore… When we went into outbreak status, we went from DOE recommendation to CDC mandates … which required quarantine for the unvaccinated. The only other mandate we could find is to keep as many kids as possible in school as long and as safely as we can …”
According to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and the Maine Department of Education are estimating the rate of COVID-19 vaccination for youth ages 5-18.
The number of individuals in that population who have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccination comes from data reported to the Maine CDC through Nov. 15. According to the COVID-19 dashboard, “These are only estimates of the vaccination rate given the different sources and limitations of the data.”
COVID-19 vaccination rates for youth 12-18 by school administrative unit:
Boothbay/Boothbay Harbor 55-59%; Bristol 25-29%; Damariscotta 95%-plus; Edgecomb 70-74%; Jefferson 35-39%; Newcastle 95%-plus; Nobleboro 70-74%; South Bristol 20-24%; Wiscasset 60-64%; RSU 12 95%-plus; RSU 40 45-49%.
According to the COVID-19 State of Maine Vaccination Dashboard, as of Nov. 16, 576 children in Lincoln County aged 5-11, or 15.22% of that population, received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. For the 12-19 age range, 1,830 individuals, or 44.13% of that population received their final dose of the vaccine.
Individual school staff vaccination rates as reported for October 2021 by the Maine CDC, a division of DHHS:
Boothbay Region Elementary School 84.3%; Boothbay Region High School 100.00%; Bristol Consolidated School 89.60%; Dresden Elementary School 88.50%; Edgecomb Eddy School 96%; Great Salt Bay Community School (September data) 91.80%; Jefferson Village School 64.7%; Lincoln Academy 96%; Medomak Middle School 54.9%; Medomak Valley High School 63.4%; Miller School 61.4%; Nobleboro Central School 81.6%; Somerville Elementary School (September data) 72.2%; South Bristol Elementary School 88.9%; Southport Central School 100%; Whitefield Elementary School (September data) 73.50%; Wiscasset Elementary School 75%; Wiscasset Middle-High School 83.3%.