LAKES REGION — School districts will continue with hybrid learning models after Thanksgiving break, superintendents say, because data shows that schools are low risk settings for transmission of COVID-19.

Health experts, including Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Nirav Shah, have said that small gatherings are fueling the recent surge in positive cases and warned Mainers against gathering with individuals outside of their immediate households for Thanksgiving.

Students enrolled in the Bonny Eagle, Windham-Raymond, Gray-New Gloucester, Lake Region and Sebago school districts will continue with their chosen mode of learning for the remainder of the semester barring any COVID-19 outbreaks, the five superintendents said.

With the exception of Sebago Elementary School, which is a one-school district and fully in-person, the districts are using a hybrid learning model this semester: part-time in-person learning and part-time remote. All districts offered a fully remote option.

The holiday break will not change the districts’ contingency plans for probable or confirmed positive cases among students and staff either, the administrators said. They said all schools are prepared to send students home and go to fully remote learning at a moment’s notice.

“We’re not going to preemptively close schools,” SAD 6 Superintendent Paul Penna said Monday. “We’re just going to continue monitoring what happens post-holiday as much as possible.”

SAD 6 serves five towns in York and Cumberland counties, including Standish.

“In-person instruction is the best model for our students and we don’t want to give that up,” Penna said.

Cumberland County has maintained its “green” status, a categorization from the Department of Education that suggests there is a relatively low risk of the disease spreading in schools. York County is designated “yellow,” which suggests an elevated risk but still allows for hybrid learning models.

As of the latest update to the Maine CDC’s COVID-19 zip code data Nov. 15, Standish had 54 positive cases.

SAD 15 Superintendent Craig King said that the district monitors case counts and infection rates daily.

“When the data indicates that there might be a reason to close the school, we do that,” King said last week.

Gray has 45 positive cases of COVID-19 and New Gloucester has 17.

“It has become a daily task for the administration and nursing staff to look at our internal data about transmission rates in the two communities of Gray and New Gloucester,” King said.

Gray-New Gloucester High School had to quickly move to remote learning last week after one student and one teacher tested positive for the virus. King said in a statement the two cases were not related. Students enrolled in hybrid learning will return to their regular schedule Nov. 30.

King said that the shortage in substitute staff forced them to close the school, not the positive cases.

“We had reached a number where we did not have enough personnel to run the school,” he said.

Not only could potential or actual outbreaks close the schools, but high staff absenteeism could, too.

Flu and cold season are an additional challenge for keeping schools open.

“What’s unfortunate is that the symptoms for the common cold and the common flu are the same as COVID,” so staff may stay home out of precaution, King said.

Windham-Raymond schools are on the opposite end of the spectrum in that regard, Superintendent Chris Howell said.

The district used CARES Act funding to hire additional daily substitutes for the staff, which has allowed them to keep schools open.

With the funding expiring Dec. 30, “I think we need to keep schools open as long as possible,” Howell said.

As of Tuesday, were 29 individuals currently in quarantine, according to RSU 14’s COVID-19 dashboard.

Raymond has 26 cumulative positive cases and Windham has by far the highest number of cases in the Lakes Region at 233. But Howell said that the outbreak at the Maine Correctional Center skews those numbers to make Windham look like a hotspot.

Maine CDC spokesperson Robert Long confirmed that the majority of the inmates housed at MCC are considered Windham residents. There were 147 cases at the facility as of Monday.

SAD 61, which serves Bridgton, Casco, Naples and Sebago, has not had any cases of COVID-19, according to Superintendent Al Smith. and the district is working on plans for fully in-person learning next semester.

Of those four towns, Naples had the highest number of COVID-19 cases at 19.

Sebago Elementary, which is governed by its own school district, announced its first case last week. All students were sent home for remote learning Monday and Tuesday this week but will return Nov. 30, said Superintendent Marc Gendron.

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