Maine schools have had 1,390 cases of COVID-19 and more than 50 outbreaks in the first weeks of classes, although school and state officials say they remain confident in the safety of in-person learning.

The numbers, released in a new state dashboard of coronavirus cases and outbreaks in schools, represent some of the highest prevalence of COVID-19 schools have seen throughout the pandemic. The 1,390 cases were reported over the last 30 days among public and private schools and include 52 outbreaks – a significant increase from the 14 school outbreaks the Maine Department of Education reported last week.

There are about 172,000 students and 47,000 school staff in Maine. The schools with outbreaks represent about 7 percent of the state’s more than 700 schools.

Despite the large number of cases, superintendents and state officials say in-person learning can continue as long as schools continue to follow health and safety protocols such as universal indoor masking, physical distancing and vaccinations for all who are eligible.

“We’re trying to keep kids back in school,” said Paul Penna, superintendent in Buxton-based School Administrative District 6. “It does disrupt that educational flow we’re trying to get, but with that said, we also want to minimize any in-school spread, which we haven’t had any at this point. As (Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Nirav Shah) has said, that’s not really the major issue. It’s community spread that is causing most of our disruption.”

SAD6 has outbreaks at Bonny Eagle High School and Bonny Eagle Middle School, each of which has seven cases. But with 1,150 and 800 students respectively, Penna said the outbreaks have had minimal impact. An outbreak is three or more epidemiologically linked positive cases reported over a 14-day period.

“The hospitals are full, so to see these cases at the school level and knowing delta travels quickly through families, it stands to reason all of us will be impacted at some level,” Penna said. “There’s no way around that, but by and large when you look at the numbers of students in school in comparison to the numbers quarantined, I think our numbers are pretty good.”

AT BONNY EAGLE

At Bonny Eagle Middle School on Friday, several parents said they feel safe sending their children to school, despite the high COVID numbers statewide, and are happy to see the return to full in-person learning.

“Overall, I think it’s very safe and the school is doing everything they can under the conditions to keep the kids safe,” said Ethan Kane, who has children at both the middle and high school.

“I don’t think it’s when they’re in school that cases are being transmitted. I think it’s in the community,” said Kane’s wife, Tracy Kane, who is happy to see her children in school five days per week.

Annette Drouin, whose daughter is in seventh grade, feels it’s safe for students to be back full-time and the return to in-person learning has made a big difference for her daughter.

“I’m glad they decided on masks,” Drouin said. “I think there were some questions in the beginning. I don’t know if I would have been comfortable with that full-time, full-capacity with no masks. I think they’re doing the best they can and in middle school it’s a little easier because two-thirds of them are old enough to be vaccinated, which makes me feel a little safer.”

Mary Ann Folley, a social worker at the middle school who has children in second and sixth grade in the district, said the return to in-person learning for them and for students generally has been beneficial. “It was really hard for me to meet with kids virtually last year,” Folley said. “It’s restrictive when they’re home. … I think there’s generally a pretty grateful buzz at the school around being back.”

State officials say community transmission, not in-school transmission, is driving case rates in schools. Children and teens are making up an increasing share of Maine’s COVID-19 cases, in part because those under 12 remain ineligible for vaccinations, but Shah said during a briefing Wednesday that the number of children who have been hospitalized has remained a very small percentage of overall hospitalizations. Out of the 192 people hospitalized with the virus Wednesday, just two were children. In the last 30 days, five children have been hospitalized and one has been admitted to an intensive care unit.

TOO EARLY TO TELL

At the briefing Wednesday, Shah said it’s too early in the school year to tell to what degree things like masking and vaccination rates are having on case rates and outbreaks in schools. Last year, Shah said that while there was some school-based transmission, case rates in schools stayed lower than the community at large and most cases were the result of community transmission.

“Our expectation is we will continue to see schools be a safe place – not a place where transmission consistently occurs,” Shah said. “But right now, it is too early in the school year to go out with that conclusion. Right now we’re really seeing the follow-up of a lot of community transmission. It’s too early to see whether we’re then seeing secondary waves of transmission in schools.”

The numbers reported by the state Friday follow a similar format to what the education department was using last year and will be updated weekly. They represent reports made by Maine schools and not all have been confirmed by the Maine CDC. Case totals include both students and staff. The department does not break down the numbers of cases among children versus adults.

Last year, cases in Maine schools reached a high point in the late spring. At the end of April, the education department reported 968 cases over a 30-day period, or a case rate of 45 per 10,000 staff and students. That increased again slightly in early May, when the case rate hit 46 per 10,000, but remained far below the case rate of 78 per 10,000 in the general population. The case rate for the most recent school numbers was not available Friday.

Some of the largest outbreak investigations currently include 25 cases at Piscataquis Elementary School, 35 cases at Caribou High School and 34 cases at Hermon High School.

In Windham-based Regional School Unit 14, which has an open outbreak of nine cases at Windham High School, Superintendent Chris Howell said the district has not traced any cases to activities happening in schools. The district also has reported six cases in the last 14 days at Windham Primary School, though Howell said they have not yet been notified by the CDC that the school is in outbreak status.

Since the start of the school year, Howell said 23 students have had to quarantine but 256 close contacts have been exempted from quarantine because of the district’s universal indoor masking policy. Vaccinations also have helped mitigate quarantines and have allowed teachers to stay in classrooms, preventing some of the staffing problems schools encountered last year.

“School is safe,” Howell said. “In fact, I would say it’s the safest place in the community and we want to do everything we can to keep it that way.”

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