At least two school districts in York County are modifying their plans for reopening following new guidance from the Maine Department of Education indicating an increased risk of the spread of COVID-19 following recent outbreaks.

The superintendent of schools in Sanford, which has been the site of at least two outbreaks, announced Friday that he is pushing back the start of school for all students to Sept. 14. High school students and students at the Sanford Regional Technical Center were previously scheduled to begin school Tuesday.

“When you look at the information released today by the state and you combine that with the recent events in Sanford, I’m concerned about an increased level of community risk and community transmission,” Sanford Superintendent Matt Nelson said.

The district is still planning on having elementary students return in person five days a week beginning Sept. 14, while middle school students will start the year remotely because of construction delays. High school students will attend in person but in cohorts that alternate days.

There also has been significant interest in the district’s remote-only option, which has drawn an estimated 30 percent of the students.

“The events in Sanford in the last week have had a number of families make the decision to choose the remote option,” Nelson said. “I think they were comfortable with the in-person option based on what was happening, tracking all our data through the summer. But the events in York County and specifically in Sanford in the last week have caused me to delay our start and I think some families are also re-evaluating their decisions.”

The Wells-Ogunquit Community School District also released a new schedule on Friday that covers the first few weeks of school, which starts Tuesday for students in some grade levels.

The district is planning on bringing all students back in-person five days per week this fall, but now will wait until Sept. 21 and will only have groups of students return before then. All students also can choose a remote-only option.

The Maine Department of Education’s reclassification of York County as “yellow” in its color-coded school reopening advisory system comes as the county has had five outbreaks in the last two weeks, seen an increase in cases per capita and currently has a positivity rate of 1.8 percent – three times the state average.

The outbreaks include one of the state’s largest to date, at the York County Jail, where 72 cases have been reported, and Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford, where there are 10 cases. The pastor of the church, Todd Bell, was the officiant at a wedding and reception in the Millinocket area last month that has since been linked to three deaths and 147 cases around the state,  including those at the jail.

The Department of Education has left decisions on reopening up to individual districts, and the advisory system is meant as a recommendation. Though the advisories are updated every two weeks, the department decided to reassess York and Penobscot counties a week early because of the recent outbreaks. Penobscot and all other Maine counties remain green, meaning in-person instruction can take place as long as safety precautions are in place.

The state said all school districts in York County were already planning on opening in hybrid scenarios, but what that looks like varies by individual district. Some are bringing students back in person just a few days per week while others are attempting to bring all students back in person while providing a remote-only option for those who choose it.

 

In Sanford, where the state is also monitoring an outbreak at the fire department, Heidi Barker said she decided last weekend to enroll her son, Cameron, in the district’s remote-only option for the fall rather than send him back to Sanford High School because of the situation with the virus.

Her daughter, Natalie, an eighth-grader, was already enrolled in remote learning in another district and her older son, Andrew, who is handicapped and enrolled in a program at the Morrison Center in Wells, will continue to attend in person with a small group.

“Cameron was really looking forward to going back to school and then I learned about the fire department and the jail and I thought, ‘If they can’t keep this under control in the fire department and they can’t do it in the jail, how can I trust they can possibly do this in the schools?'” Barker said. “So that’s when we pulled him out.”

All three children are adopted and Barker, 62, said she and her partner have health conditions.

“We’re older parents,” she said. “My partner has diabetes and I have a heart condition. Even more than that, my grandchildren, who we interact with every day, have cystic fibrosis. So we have to be even more careful than most people.”

Barker said she was a little surprised the state did not designate York County as red, meaning there is a high risk of COVID-19 spread.

“Right now I see we’re yellow as a county, but I think we should really be red as a city and I’m disappointed it’s not,” she said. “But I’m also not disappointed because at least we can get on with the start of school the way we’re going to do it.”

Leaders in other York County districts said while the change was expected, it also highlights the need for continued vigilance around the virus.

“We’re already set up to operate in yellow, so we’re taking those safety precautions,” Biddeford Schools Superintendent Jeremy Ray said. “We certainly will be reinforcing with all our staff and the community the importance of hand hygiene and wearing masks. We really need to stay very vigilant about all of that so the situation doesn’t become worse.”

Ray said that while his district is not changing its reopening plans, the spread of the virus through York County shows how an event in one part of the state can easily impact life in another, distant part of the state.

“Just because we feel like our region is safe, it doesn’t mean the virus isn’t there and it doesn’t have an impact on others,” he said. “I think it looks like the outbreaks in York County are pointing back in one direction.”

John Suttie, superintendent of Regional School Unit 23 in Old Orchard Beach, said his district also is opening in a yellow plan with all students in person four days per week.

“Fortunately for us, it was kind of dumb luck,” he said. “As we were thinking about how to open school, even though York County was green at the time, it seemed like the safest approach given everyone’s concerns to open in our yellow plan. So for us today, nothing is going to change. I’m very happy I didn’t decide to open our schools according to the color green, because I would be scrambling to make changes in our schedules.”

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