Katyana Giovannini was excited to start middle school. The experience was off to a good start until a few days into the school year, when Giovannini’s school notified her she had been exposed to COVID-19 and would have to quarantine for 10 days before returning in-person.

“I was really sad, but then I realized, well, this is just how we’ll be able to keep safe and it’s the only way it will be able to work while we’re waiting for the (pooled testing in schools) and vaccines,” said Giovannini, 11.

The sixth-grader at Portland’s King Middle School is among hundreds of Maine students who have started the school year quarantined at home because of COVID-19 exposures. Families and schools alike had high hopes for a fully in-person school year this year, but the delta variant and lack of an approved vaccine for children under age 12 means schools are already confronting cases, quarantines, and, in some cases, closures a week into the school year.

The timing of the cases so close to the start of the year has left school districts scrambling to distribute technology and set up remote learning plans that weren’t prepared ahead of time. It’s also led to frustration for families whose students are now home quarantining without laptops or classwork or who find themselves once again missing in-person school.

“I think the problem is in the general planning,” said Giovannini’s mother, Barbara Mascarenas, who said her daughter was sent home without her Chromebook or any assignments. “I think the teachers are doing the best they can. I know teachers are under a lot of strain and I know everyone is, but I feel the plans from the top could have been a little more thoughtful.”

The Maine Department of Education isn’t tracking individual COVID cases in schools this year and also doesn’t track how many students are in quarantine and not in the classroom. But many districts around the state have already had to notify parents of individual cases and the need to quarantine.

The department is publishing a weekly list of school outbreaks in schools, meaning three or more cases in one site. As of Thursday, there were 14 open outbreak investigations at Maine schools and 11 schools had reported full or partial closures because of COVID-19 to the department.

The rules for quarantines from school exposures are complex, which has added to frustrations. They generally require unvaccinated “close contacts” who have been within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes to quarantine for 10 days.

There are limited exceptions, including students who participate in the state’s pooled testing program and students in schools with mandatory mask policies who are exposed in a classroom setting. The masking exception doesn’t apply when there is direct physical contact or when a close contact happens in non-classroom settings where distancing is a challenge, such as cafeterias and school buses.

In Westbrook, Superintendent Peter Lancia said Thursday the district has identified seven positive cases and about 65 close contacts since before school started. Of those close contacts, about 30 students have had to quarantine.

“I think it’s happening everywhere,” Lancia said. “Talking with other superintendents, we’ve all been saying it’s right out the gate, unfortunately, with cases already.”

Westbrook students in quarantine will be able to continue classwork through online platforms associated with their classes, but the work will be asynchronous, or completed independently. Synchronous or real-time instruction will only be available if an entire class or school needs to quarantine.

Providing remote instruction for quarantined students has always been part of the district’s plan, but Lancia said they had to scramble with technology distribution last week as the district was still receiving and setting up new devices.

“It was always a possibility for us, but I was surprised we had kids in quarantine before the school year even began,” he said. “That was a reminder that we’re still in the throes of the pandemic and as much as we would like to think we’re ready to go back to what was more typical or more familiar, we’re not ready yet. … We have to be ready for change at a moment’s notice.”

David Morse, whose son is starting kindergarten at Canal Elementary School in Westbrook, said they learned last week of an exposure at kindergarten orientation on Sept. 2, resulting in some kindergarten students having to quarantine and delaying their start of school until Monday. Morse’s wife, who was with their son at orientation, is vaccinated and hasn’t been symptomatic, so she hasn’t had to quarantine.

David and Kaitlyn Morse, whose son, David, is starting kindergarten at Canal Elementary School in Westbrook, said an exposure to COVID-19 at an orientation on Sept. 2 led to the quarantining of their 5-year-old and several of his classmates, pushing back the start of their school year until Monday. The Morses hope the school district adopts a pooled testing program. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“He was really excited to get to see the classroom and meet his teachers and then to find out the next day you were about to start but not so much, it was pretty disappointing,” said Morse, who also serves as a Westbrook city councilor. “I’m not upset at the school or anything. I understand the reason for it; it’s just personal disappointment.”

Morse is hoping Westbrook will adopt a pooled testing program, which Lancia said he brought up for reconsideration with the school committee last week.

Pooled testing means students are periodically tested as a group to provide an early warning of any disease present. If a group test is positive, students are tested individually to identify who has, and could spread, the disease.

State health officials have said group testing can help schools avert outbreaks and reduce the need for quarantines. But many districts did not have pooled testing programs ready in time for the start of the school year and are still in the process of setting them up.

Lancia said his district has hesitated to participate after a survey earlier in the year found only about 50 percent of families indicated they would be willing to participate.

“There is some concern it’s invasive, even though it’s a very easy test and a very easy swab,” Lancia said. “To some it feels like an invasive practice and we worry about the capacity of doing it as well, and who is going to manage the pools and the testing.”

While hundreds of students are sidelined in individual quarantines, some schools have closed, with or without a remote leaning plan.

In Kennebunk-based Regional School Unit 21, the Mildred L. Day School in Arundel announced last week it would shift to remote learning  after four positive cases generated 143 close contacts. The school identified 20 positive cases by the end of the week and extended remote learning until Sept. 20. The district also has classrooms from the Sea Road School in Kennebunk in remote learning as a result of a positive case there. More than 200 people were asked to quarantine between the two schools.

In a statement Friday, RSU 21 Superintendent Terri Cooper said she could not elaborate for confidentiality reasons on why so many close contacts were identified at Mildred L. Day other than to say the quarantines were not because of a lunchroom exposure. “We are following the recommendations of the federal and Maine state CDC, the Maine Department of Education, the governor’s office and our standard operating procedures,” Cooper said.

Cooper said the district plans to start pooled testing on Monday and has remote learning options set up to respond to individual, class and school quarantines.

Some parents, however, are frustrated by the return to remote learning and what they feel is an overreaction by the administration in identifying such a large number of close contacts. “We should not have 240 kids at home,” said Chris Perham, who has two children at Mildred L. Day that are quarantining. “That’s just not how it works.”

“It’s very frustrating,” said Veronika Tio, whose daughter is in third grade at Sea Road. “It was literally the first week of school and now we’re back to remote. Given she is a third-grader, she doesn’t really do much work (at home). She just wants to go do something else. She doesn’t really associate the house with school.”

Tio is working remotely in her job as a quality assurance engineer but said it complicates her day to have to also be supervising her daughter and her remote learning.

“Pooled testing sounds like it should help us stay in school, but I’m afraid to even be hopeful right now,” said Tio, 44. “I don’t want to get my hopes up and face this again and have that frustration again. Right now we’re like, ‘We’ll see how it goes.'”

For some other students affected by the disruptions, meanwhile, remote learning isn’t an option.

In Portland, Katyana Giovannini was one of 13 close contacts identified at King Middle School in the first week of school following one positive case there. On Thursday, almost a week after they were notified of the exposure, Giovannini said she was able to pick up some worksheets and a Chromebook from school, though she won’t have any access to live classes until she returns in-person on Tuesday.

Earlier in the week, her mother, Mascarenas, enrolled her daughter in online classes through the platform Outschool, downloaded worksheets online and kept Giovannini busy with projects like painting their house.

“I feel like my daughter is doing nothing except the things I am supplementing,” she said. “I’m doing it, but I have the time, energy and the resources to do it. It’s frustrating and the thing that’s frustrating to me is this was so predictable. We’ve known since mid-July that delta was in the air and for some reason they’re not testing kids.”

The Portland Public Schools department is planning to start pooled testing for kindergarten through sixth grade on Sept. 20. Portland Superintendent Xavier Botana was unavailable to answer questions about remote learning for quarantined students and pooled testing on Friday, said Tess Nacelewicz, communications coordinator for the district. The district also did not respond to a question about how many Portland students are in quarantine, but on Friday reported 18 cases in the last week, including an outbreak of nine cases at Lyseth Elementary School.

Portland High School closed for one day last Tuesday so the department could identify and notify close contacts of two people who tested positive. The school did not shift to remote learning that day, and district officials did not respond to questions last week about what if any remote learning was being offered to Portland High students in quarantine.

At a school board meeting Tuesday, Botana said the district was able to narrow down an initial list of about 170 possible close contacts at Portland High to about 35 that would need to quarantine in response to two cases at that school. Those were cases where students were not vaccinated, Botana said.

In general, individual students who have to quarantine will be treated as if they have an excused absence and will have time to make up work when they return to school, Botana said at the meeting, though in some instances the district may be able to provide materials while students are quarantining.

“In instances such as the ones we had today (at Portland High) and last week, where an entire class needs to be quarantined, we are in the process of determining exactly what happens in terms of remote instruction versus asynchronous instruction,” he said.

Botana said pooled testing should help mitigate quarantines, but the district has also heard concerns about needs for more robust remote learning for quarantined students. “I think we walk away from this with a clear understanding we need to figure out how to get our testing up and running quickly and effectively and also to address concerns about students who are in quarantine,” Botana said.

For Mascarenas, she feels lucky her daughter’s exposure happened over a holiday weekend, which mitigated the number of days she missed of in-person school, but the first few days of middle school are still an important time. “She’s missing a whole week of that community building and on top of that she has absolutely no academic anything either,” Mascarenas said. “It’s sad.”

Other parents around Maine are also worried about their children missing out and that exposures in schools will continue.

In the western Maine town of Rumford, Marissa Cothron’s fourth-grade daughter, Zoey, is currently in quarantine until Monday because of an exposure at Rumford Elementary School on the first day of school.

Zoey received paper packets of schoolwork to complete during quarantine, but Cothron said she “had pretty much flown through them” halfway through quarantine and they hadn’t heard anything else about remote learning. Instead they started “doing our own thing,” watching educational YouTube videos and using the online platform Duolingo to study Spanish.

“If she gets exposed again and this continues, then she’s not really getting an education every time she’s being quarantined,” Cothron said. “We’re concerned about that. We want her to get a good education, but at the same time we’re trying to keep her safe.”

Rumford Elementary School Principal Jill Bartash said the school currently has about 20 students in quarantine, though some are from exposures in the community and not at school.

Because the cases occurred so early in the year, the school hadn’t yet assigned technology for students or taken other steps they normally would to support at-home learning for quarantined students. Bartash said, however, that the district administration is developing plans for quarantined students that will include remote work that can be accessed online and daily check-ins from staff.

“We all spent a lot of time out last year and I understand the frustration for families and how difficult it is,” Bartash said. “We know how much learning is lost when students are not in the classroom, and schools are doing their best to keep kids in school as much as possible. We’re putting in place protective measures and each community is making decisions on masking and testing. We’re all doing our best and hope to support kids as best we can.”


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