TOPSHAM — Officials have closed Mt. Ararat High School after a COVID-19 outbreak.

Students, who have been attending school with a mix of in-person and remote learning, will attend classes remotely until returning to school in person on Feb. 8.

An outbreak means there are three or more cases of COVID-19 within a 14-day period that are epidemiologically linked. This is the first outbreak and closure at a school in Maine School Administrative District 75, which serves students in Bowdoin, Bowdoinham, Harpswell and Topsham.

The high school will be cleaned during the closure to prevent more infections.

The closure is also affecting athletics and other in-person activities. “There will be no in-person meetings, practices, or contests for extra-curricular groups or athletic teams during the time that the school is closed,” states a message to district families.

Mt. Ararat High School also sends students to Region Ten Technical High School in Brunswick along with Freeport, Brunswick and Lisbon high schools. Paul Perzanoski, the interim superintendent for the tech school, said Wednesday that its Mt. Ararat students will learn remotely until Feb. 8.

“We know we’ve had more than three cases in a short period of time and we feel like this is the best course of action,” Superintendent Shawn Chabot said Wednesday.

Chabot said he didn’t know the exact number of COVID-19 cases at the high school. According to the district’s website, there were four positive cases districtwide as of Monday; and 47 total positive cases with 429 close contacts required to quarantine for the entire school year.

Chabot said the high school will return to its hybrid model on Feb. 8. The district will also continue to incrementally increase in-person learning for students as long a the Maine Department of Education continues to categorize Sagadahoc County as having a relatively low risk of COVID-19 transmission.

Sports and extracurricular activities also will resume on Feb. 8, Chabot said.

“I think it’s a balance between safety and allowing kids to do some extracurricular activities in schools,” Chabot said. “Obviously in my opinion the priority is their education and in my mind that has to be No. 1 and extracurricular No 2 behind that but if we can, as much as we possibly can, keep our kids safe and staff safe and offer these athletic events, my intent is still to continue to do so.”

The outbreak at the high school comes as MSAD 75 has been increasing in-person learning in phases, starting with its youngest students. Pre-K and first-grade students returned to school for four days a week in early December. Students in grades 2-3 followed suit earlier this month and grades 4 and 5 are expected to increase in-person learning on Feb. 22.

The school district’s plan to increase in-person learning didn’t include the high school or middle school because school officials said those school buildings don’t have space to distance students as required by the state if they are all in the building at once.

Asked if the school district is doing enough as COVID-19 cases have increased in recent months across the state and nation, Chabot said students, staff and parents are all doing their best to keep one another safe in MSAD 75.

“Everyone is wearing masks and we’re doing our cleaning, we’re maintaining social distancing,” Chabot said. “In my mind, the most important safety measures are wearing a mask and keeping your social distance … I believe we’ve been pretty diligent in following those and that’s why overall we’ve done a pretty good job and why we’ve avoided these type of closures up to this point.”

Mt. Ararat High School English teacher Lianna Fenimore has been in the high school four days a week with students and praised the district’s safety measures.

“I have to say, I’m someone that was apprehensive about being in school but I actually feel far safer when I’m in school than I do when out in public like in a grocery store and I think that’s attributed to work both staff and students are doing,” Fenimore said Wednesday. “I’m very proud of the way students are adhering to protocols for masking and social distancing.”

Fenimore said she would not advocate that the school switch to remote-only learning after Feb. 8. Nor does she advocate for any more-in person learning.

“I certainly don’t think it’s safe to bring students back full-time, particularly at the high school where we don’t have space to seat students and meet CDC guidelines,” Fenimore said.

Carl DeMars, the president of ambulatory care for Mid Coast Hospital, said that it is possible for students to be in schools safely if they take the proper precautions, with the caveat that schools “throttle it back down” when there is an outbreak.

“We know that if using the proper techniques of preventing the transmission of COVID, that there’s very low transmission and I know our schools are trying the best they can to keep in place masking, social distancing and hand hygiene,” DeMars said.

That is a good start at preventing transmission, DeMars said. He said the real transmission is happening in the home and outside settings where people let their guard down and don’t wear masks or distance. There are many asymptomatic people out there, meaning they have COVID-19 but no symptoms, which is how the virus spreads, DeMars said.

“That’s the more important message for these school kids is really, outside of schools is where they need to maintain their vigilance,” DeMars said.

As of Wednesday, the Maine CDC had reported 743 confirmed or probable COVID-19 cases in Sagadahoc County and 10,920 confirmed or probable cases in Cumberland County, which encompasses Harpswell Community School. There had been 38,170 cases reported statewide.

As of Jan. 17 there had been 41 cumulative cases of COVID-19 reported in Harpswell, 38 cases in Bowdoin, 52 cases in Bowdoinham and 192 cases in Topsham, according to the Maine CDC.

The Maine CDC reported 462 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, along with four additional deaths, the Portland Press Herald reported. The 7-day average for daily cases has dropped from 620 to 459 over the last two weeks, or one incubation period, but is still up slightly from 448 this time last month and up from 221 two months ago.


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