The number of coronavirus cases in Maine schools is rising as cases in the community remain high and as many students return to more in-person learning.

The current case rate in schools is 45 per 10,000 students and staff over the last 30 days, according to the Maine Department of Education. That number is still lower than the case rate among the general population – at 74 cases per 10,000 people – but is the highest rate the department has reported since it started releasing comparisons of the case rates in early December.

Education officials are bracing for the possibility of a spike in cases following last week’s April vacation, but despite high case numbers some superintendents are still maintaining or increasing in-person learning.

On Friday, the state designated four counties – Androscoggin, Kennebec, Oxford and Somerset – as “yellow,” meaning there is an elevated risk of COVID-19 spread and schools may consider hybrid instruction. The change marked the first time since Jan. 29 that all 16 counties in Maine weren’t “green,” which indicates the risk of COVID spread is low and in-person instruction may be offered as long as health and safety requirements are followed.

“We are seeing a pretty dramatic and steady increase in the case rates in Maine schools,” Commissioner of Education Pender Makin said. The rise in school cases is not linked to transmission in schools but rather is a reflection of an increase in community spread, she said.

“With increased testing available and vaccinations now available to pretty much everyone 16 and older, we are so hopeful community members will step up, get vaccinated, stay home if they’re not feeling well and keep social distancing going and keep masks on,” Makin said. “The transmission happening in the community is impacting our schools and the extent to which anyone can be full-time in-person.”

There have been 968 cases among students and staff in schools in the last 30 days, including both confirmed and probable cases, and there are more than 90 open outbreaks, according to the Department of Education dashboard.

The latest numbers come as more students have been returning to additional in-person learning and as young people are continuing to drive case counts in Maine and elsewhere, in part because they were the last to become eligible for the vaccine and there is still no vaccine approved for children under 16.

The Department of Education does not have data on what modes of instruction each school is offering, but according to the Return to Learn Tracker, a project of the American Enterprise Institute and Davidson College, 3 percent of Maine school districts were fully remote, 74 percent were operating in hybrid learning and 20 percent were fully in-person as of April 12.

Makin said the department is watching closely to determine whether increases in in-person learning are driving case counts, but she continues to believe it is safe for schools to increase in-person time as long as they can follow the state’s health and safety requirements. “Thus far, the information our partners at CDC have provided us would indicate that largely the case rates are being driven by community-based transmission or after school type activities, things that are happening outside of the classroom,” she said.

At the same time, the state also is bracing for further increases in school case counts following the April break. On Monday, the department received 145 reports of new student and staff cases. While some of those reports may be backlogged due to the break and all have yet to be verified, Makin said they are on par with a spike in cases also seen after the Christmas break.

“I have to say we are a little bit nervous because while outside of school students are less likely to be following those rigid protocols and wearing masks and staying socially distanced when they’re in community settings or home settings or traveling or having other activities that happen during vacation time,” she said. “We are bracing for what appears to be a pretty large number.”

School superintendents also said the current case numbers are a reflection of increased spread in the community and they are moving ahead with plans to maintain or increase in-person learning.

“The procedures and practices we have in place have been very effective at preventing spread within the schools, but that doesn’t prevent someone that is positive from coming into school,” said Rick Colpitts, superintendent of the Oxford Hills School District in South Paris. “Despite our best efforts, that is what’s bringing COVID into schools. People are getting positive through community interactions and when they do come into school there are times when a positive case will spread to another student within the school.”

Two of the largest open outbreak investigations in schools are at Oxford Hills Consolidated High School and Guy E. Rowe School in Oxford Hills. Colpitts said many of the cases associated with those outbreaks are no longer active, but the schools remain in outbreak status because they have not gone 28 days without additional positive cases.

District data indicates there are now eight positive cases, all of which stem from community spread. Students in grades pre-K to sixth grade have been in-person five days per week all year, except for those who have chosen to stay remote, while middle and high school students receive either two days or three days per week of in-person instruction depending on the week. Colpitts said there are no plans to change the instructional models in response to Oxford County’s “yellow” designation Friday.

“The only reason we’re not back 100 percent, even when green, is because we can’t meet the distancing requirements,” Colpitts said. “The distancing requirements don’t change when we’re yellow, so there’s no change there either.”

In Brunswick, the school department’s plans to implement four days per week of in-person learning starting Monday were disrupted over the weekend by a number of transportation staff having to quarantine. The quarantines sent the entire district into remote learning and come on the heels of an upward trend in case numbers in the district before the April break. Still, Superintendent Phil Potenziano said they are planning to move ahead with the plans for more in-person time announced earlier this month.

“We are feeling positive that we will be able to go back to in-person learning this Thursday for four days per week,” Potenziano said in an email. “We have had several bus drivers receive negative test results just today.”

In Windham-based Regional School Unit 14, Superintendent Chris Howell said Windham High School did have to transition to remote learning for a few days before the April break due to staff quarantines caused by student cases. Those cases were largely driven by a student social event not sanctioned by the school, Howell said.

RSU14 will add an additional day of in-person learning this week on Fridays, which had previously served as remote days, for students in alternating cohorts. Howell believes schools are seeing increased cases because young people have not been able to get vaccinated, but he said COVID fatigue also may be playing a role.

“Kids have done a great job following the guidelines at school, but outside and at community events that’s not always necessarily true,” he said.

Elementary and middle school students in Portland returned to four days per week of in-person learning Monday following the break and high school students returned to two days per week in-person earlier this month.

While Cumberland County remains “green,” Superintendent Xavier Botana said in a letter to the community last week that the district planned to proceed with its increase in in-person learning even if the state had designated the county “yellow” on Friday.

Botana said the reasons for that decision include that U.S. CDC guidance continues to say in-person schooling can be done safely as long as health and safety measures are followed, that statewide data continues to show that case rates are lower in schools than among the general population and evidence shows not being in school can be more harmful to students while in-person learning can be used to address opportunity gaps and mental health challenges.

Maine generally saw low case numbers throughout last summer and fall. In mid-October, at the time the Department of Education released its dashboard, the rate of cases in schools was 5 per 10,000 students and staff compared to a rate of 6.7 in the general public over a 30-day period.

Two weeks ago on April 9, the case rate in schools was 37 per 10,000 staff and students, compared to a statewide case rate of 50 per 10,000 people. Before that, the highest case rate in schools was 36 per 10,000 staff and students on Feb. 12. Case rates in the community reached 116 per 10,000 people in late January, at which point the department said the rate in schools was 34 per 10,000.

On Friday, the department announced it will be launching a pooled PCR testing program for schools starting in early May. Makin said the department is in ongoing communication with districts and providing resources and guidance on how to support students and respond to cases.

“Our team has been working nonstop to make sure schools have everything we can possibly provide for them, whether its communication and information, funding or actual resources and logistical support, we’re here for schools and we stand with them in these extremely challenging times,” she said.

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