Maine schools reported 2,578 cases of COVID-19 and 108 outbreaks in the last 30 days, representing another significant increase in cases since the start of the school year.

The numbers released on Thursday by the Maine Department of Education are up from a 30-day tally of 2,080 cases and 72 outbreaks in schools as of last week.

Schools with active outbreaks represent 15 percent of about 710 schools statewide. There are 172,000 students and 47,000 staff in Maine schools. The department does not break the case data down between staff and students.

The number of cases is much higher than experienced in the last academic year when schools were partly remote. Most schools in Maine are not providing remote learning this year even as thousands of students across the state have had to quarantine at home because of exposure to COVID-19.

Officials have consistently said that full in-person learning can continue as long as schools commit to health and safety measures such as universal indoor masking and vaccinations for all who are eligible.

Education Commissioner Pender Makin has said the department is confident in-school learning is safe and can continue. And Gov. Janet Mills has resisted calls for a vaccine mandate for Maine teachers, something done in other states, saying school districts have the tools to keep kids safe and that school staff vaccination rates are climbing.

While Maine is in the midst of an overall surge in COVID cases, the increase in school numbers could be a result of growing participation in pooled testing. More more than 400 schools have signed up to participate through a state program launched last spring. The program gives schools the ability to conduct mass PCR testing of “pools” or groups of students in order to quickly identify and isolate cases with the goal of avoiding outbreaks and quarantines.

New data released by the state on Thursday showed 166 positive pools out of 7,340 total pools tested, for a positivity rate of 2.3 percent. There are 476 out of 710 Maine schools – or 67 percent – enrolled in the pool testing.

Children under 12 are still not eligible for vaccines, although approval is expected as soon as late October. While young people have recently represented a growing share of Maine’s overall COVID cases, the number of children with serious illness requiring hospitalization remains relatively low.

As of Wednesday, there were two children under 8 hospitalized with COVID-19 in Maine, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Nirav Shah said in a tweet Thursday. Since the start of the pandemic, at least 34 children have been hospitalized, including seven in the last 30 days.

At least nine children have been placed in intensive care units over the course of the pandemic, including at least one in the last 30 days, Shah said.

BANGOR AREA HARDEST HIT

Schools in several parts of the state are seeing large outbreaks – with a cluster of schools around the Bangor area recording among the highest case counts. An outbreak is defined as three or more epidemiologically linked, confirmed cases among different households reported over a 14-day period. An outbreak investigation is closed when there hasn’t been a new case associated with it for 14 days.

The top school outbreaks in the state as of Thursday, according to the Department of Education, are Hermon High School (40 cases), Brewer Community School (38), and Hermon Middle School and St. Brigid School, a private Catholic school in Portland, both with 31. Other schools with significant case counts include Oxford Hills (28), Sanford (23), Bangor (22), and Noble High School in North Berwick (18).

Kelli Deveaux, the Education Department’s director of communications, said the term “outbreaks” does not mean schools are unsafe, and in-person learning continues to be “the safest and most effective model for students.”

“While it sounds scary, (outbreak status) is a community health term,” Deveaux said in an email response to a question about whether Makin would require additional safety measures in schools.

“Nearly every school in Maine is implementing the proven health and safety prevention measures, such as universal masking, physical distancing whenever possible, and reinforcing hand hygiene and getting vaccinated, thereby ensuring that schools can remain safe, in fact, safer than the broader community.”

GETTING VACCINATED HELPS SCHOOLS

Deveaux added that the department encourages communities to help keep students in classrooms by getting vaccinated, wearing masks and making safe decisions about social gatherings.

Lindsay Crete, Mills’ spokeswoman, added that Maine public schools with more than 100 employees soon will be required to have the workforce fully vaccinated or require any workers who remain unvaccinated to produce a negative COVID-19 test result on a weekly basis.

The Maine Department of Labor announced on Sept. 17 that the Biden administration’s forthcoming COVID-19 vaccination or test requirement for employers with 100 or more employees will apply to the public sector in Maine, including public schools.

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 still remained far below the case rate of 78 per 10,000 in the general population.

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming contributed to this report.


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