Although there have been nine reported cases of COVID-19 associated with Portland schools, including two at Portland High School, Superintendent Xavier Botana says he’s confident safety measures in place have been effective. Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Portland Press Herald file photo

PORTLAND — With cases of the coronavirus on the rise and nine cases reported among students and staff in city schools in recent weeks, Portland Schools Superintendent Xavier Botana is concerned but confident the approach the district is taking to keep the virus out of the schools is the right one.

The nine cases as of Nov. 9, eight of which are still active, have caused 113 students and staff at East End Community School, Ocean Avenue Elementary School, Rowe Elementary School, Lyman Moore Middle School, Lincoln Middle School, King Middle School, Deering High School and Portland High School to quarantine due to close contact with those who tested positive.

“We will continue to monitor our situation and make decisions about our instructional model based on what our data tell us,” Botana said. “We remain confident that the layers of protection that we have put in place, consistent with the state’s health and safety guidelines, are working.”

Natalie Beaton, who has children at Lyseth Elementary School and Moore Middle School, said the district “has done a great job adapting quickly to changes in the pandemic.” She said the protocols in place are appropriate and effective.

“I have no fears about safety from my kids being in the schools. The safety of the students and staff has been a top priority and they are doing an amazing job,” she said.

Botana said none of the cases so far have been from people transferring the virus within the school, but the schools need help from the community to keep it that way.

“We need everyone in the school and in the community to continue to do their part to prevent the spread of the disease,” Botana said. “Monitor for symptoms and if you have been exposed to anyone with COVID let us know and don’t come to school. When in school, we will do everything in our power to enforce our guidelines, but we need folks to follow the advice of the CDC and public health officials outside of school as well.”

The school district is still requiring parents to check their children for symptoms before they head off to school, but school nurses are no longer making sure screenings have been done, he said. Instead of focusing staff time on compliance, the focus has shifted to educating parents about the need to screen for symptoms.

“It was taking up a tremendous amount of our nurses’ bandwidth,” he said.

Tristin Krause, who has a seventh grader at Moore and a freshman at Deering, said the district is doing everything it should be in terms of “putting protocols in place,” but he questions whether students should be attending in person, especially with the number of cases on the rise statewide.

On Monday, the Maine Center for Disease Control reported 204 new cases, a new daily record, across the state to bring the total number of active cases t0 7,897. Approximately 38% of the cases, or 3,004, have been in Cumberland County, including 325 between Nov. 1 and Nov. 7.

Overall, there had been 998 cases in Portland, according to zip code data the CDC released Nov. 1. As of Nov. 8, statewide, 1,010 people 19 years old or younger have tested positive for the virus, approximately 13% of the statewide total. Such data for the county or city has not been released.

“I understand why we are in school, but not with the way the cases are right now,” Krause said.

Jennifer McCullum, who has two students at Lyseth and one at Moore, said she is “happy my kids are going to school in person.”

She said Portland schools have done a good job managing “the barriers created by COVID” and are doing a good job with safety protocols, especially contact tracing.

She does wish, though, that her children were in school more than just five hours a day two days a week. She said she is concerned about the lack of socialization and if students are progressing as they should, especially her 6-year-old who is just learning to read.

Botana said school leaders are reviewing the hybrid model to find ways to safely increase the in-person learning, especially for sophomores, juniors and seniors and for students looking to transition from Remote Academy to in-person instruction.

“We continue to believe having school in person as much as possible is the best thing we can do,” Botana said.

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