Officials in Regional School Unit 21 are encouraging students and parents to not attend a homecoming dance that was privately organized for Kennebunk High School students.

The high school will have its traditional homecoming parade and football game on Saturday, but leaders decided not to throw a dance this year because of their concerns about COVID-19 transmission. That prompted a small group of parents to host their own dance at a barn venue in Lyman on Sunday. One organizer said they’ve already sold 150 tickets, but school officials made an announcement Wednesday asking people to skip it.

“Our primary goal is to keep students in school across the district in all of our buildings, in their classrooms for five days a week of in-person instruction,” Superintendent Dr. Terri Cooper said in a news release. “With the recent evidence of in-school transmission, breakthrough cases in vaccinated individuals, on top of increasing risks due to the delta variant, it seems most prudent to wait on plans for dances until we feel it’s safe. We want as few students in quarantine as possible.”

Some students and parents said it was unfair for the school to allow students to sit in the packed stands at a football game but not to attend a dance. When the school would not reconsider, opponents launched their own event. The group has raised more than $4,300 on GoFundMe to alleviate costs, and they’ve been using social media to advertise.

Lorraine Burr, whose daughter is a sophomore, said her father died of COVID-related illness this spring, and she wished her family had made more memories together in his final months. But she also said the organizers are taking precautions and do not want anyone to get sick at the event.

DOING IT FOR THE KIDS

A parent must be with their student to purchase a ticket and sign a waiver of liability related to COVID-19. Masks will be optional, sanitation stations will be available and the barn doors will remain open to allow for air flow. The high school has 750 students, but they will only sell tickets until they hit the building capacity of 290.

“We’re doing this for the kids,” Burr said. “They need to get back to having their lives and these memories.”

Dr. Donald Burgess, the consulting pediatrician for RSU 21, spoke about the decision not to host a homecoming dance during a school board meeting on Monday. He told members he thought the parade and the football game could be safe, but the usual dance would be “way too risky.” He said the event would be safer if it is held outside, but he worried that a large number of students might need to quarantine if one attendee tests positive. He said the district could need to watch its pooled testing results closely after the event.

“Trying to trace close contacts at a dance, impossible,” he said. “If you get one positive at a dance, you’re going to quarantine the whole group.”

James McCann, another parent organizer, wrote in an email Wednesday that the administration was being “overbearing” by telling parents and students what to do outside of school.

“The kids at the dance all know each other, just like they will at the parade and football game, and all go to the same school,” McCann wrote. “Doesn’t it make sense that they assume the risk of being together at a dance if they see each other at school?”

Students said their classmates are divided on attending the dance.

STUDENTS DIVIDED

Alicia Burr, 15, has been looking forward to school dances since she watched her older brother and her cousin attend them. She started a petition asking the school to allow the homecoming dance that gathered more than 500 signatures. Some students are messaging her asking how they can help, she said, but others are texting her about their concerns about spreading the virus to their younger siblings.

“This part of our lives is not only about education,” she wrote in the petition. “We are building our memories to look back on for a lifetime. If we are expected to attend in-person school five days a week, there is no reason that we can’t have an evening dance for 3 hours.”

Finley Fairfield, 17, is worried the event will jeopardize their ability to have classes and other events, like her fall musical or spring graduation, in person. She said she might attend the football game but sit apart from the crowd, but she would not go to the dance.

“I’ve worked so hard to stay safe, so I can have my senior year in person. … I understand firsthand the feeling of losing out on so many high school experiences, and I understand how tempting it is to pretend that none of this exists,” said Fairfield, who lives in Kennebunkport. “Especially as a senior, I want these things, but I want them safely.”

RSU 21, like many other Maine schools, has been navigating positive cases and close contacts. Art LeBlanc, the school board chairman, said an elementary school in Arundel closed for two weeks as a result of 24 positive cases.

“We really need to do what we can to control the community spread, in addition to controlling exposures in school-related activities,” he said.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 90 to 94 percent of RSU 21 students who are 12 or older have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. That data is an estimate based on ZIP code, and it did not include a breakdown by school. RSU 21 also reported that 94 percent of the employees at Kennebunk High School are vaccinated. The district covers Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Arundel.

The district also is conducting pooled testing to detect cases. Students and staff who are vaccinated or who participate in pooled testing are not required to quarantine from school if they are a close contact of someone who is positive for COVID-19. Those who do not participate in pooled testing and are not vaccinated are required to quarantine for 10 days in that situation.


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