Westbrook schools have seen 80 COVID-19 cases since the start of the school year and while cases are rising faster than last year, mitigation efforts have eased the impact, the superintendent says.

The 80 cases as of Nov. 22 compares to 119 total cases for the entirety of last school year. Last year, however, hybrid learning was in place, and this year, with the exception of the high school because of the July fire, students have been attending school in-person full time. Thirty of the 80 cases had been reported in the past 30 days, according to the Maine CDC.

Superintendent Peter Lancia said pooled testing, vaccinations and mandated masks, regardless of vaccination status, have allowed all Westbrook schools to stay open so far this school year. Schools in other towns, such as Gorham, have had to temporarily shut down because of outbreaks, he noted.

According to the Maine Department of Education, over the last 30 days, 167 schools in Maine have been in outbreak status with 4,433 positive cases. From Sept. 1-7, there were 307 positive cases in Maine schools and 263 outbreaks, compared to 1,324 cases and 1,264 outbreaks between Nov. 10 and 16.

“According to our data, pool testing has prevented about 46% of cases from having to quarantine, and our mask mandates for everyone in the building certainly helps,” Lancia said. “Parents though, are still sending children to school with symptoms.”

In pooled testing, rather than test each student’s sample individually, samples are tested together in batches. A negative result clears everyone in the batch. A positive result would require each student in that batch to be individually retested. Many Maine school districts put pooled testing into play this fall for grades K-6 because those students were not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

The vaccination rate for students at individual school was not available, but according to Maine CDC data updated  Nov. 22, 45-50% of Westbrook students have been vaccinated, compared to 64% in Portland, 55% in Gorham and 60-64% in South Portland.

After the CDC approved the COVID-19 vaccine for ages Nov. 2, the district held a clinic for the roughly 1,100 students in grades K-6,  25% of whom turned out to get their shots.

Children age 5-11 old make up 39% of COVID cases for people younger than 18, the FDA says. Of those cases in ages 5-11, 8,300 resulted in the children being hospitalized according to the CDC.

As of October, staff vaccination rates at the high school and middle school were 81%; at Saccarappa, 92%; Congin, 88%; and Canal, 83%, according to the Maine CDC.

Lancia said the weather has also been an ally.

“Tt’s been a nice fall. We’ve gone outside for lunch about every day through the beginning of November, which has kept kids distanced and safe. All of these mitigation things are like a layer of protection,” Lancia said.

School staff members are preparing for the onslaught of cold weather, which will keep students inside more, and for the return of students to the high school starting Dec. 1.

Lancia said it will be important that students returning from the Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks screen for COVID-19 symptoms and stay home if they have any of them, which he said students are starting to fail to do more regularly.

“Really we need to keep on course. We need to stay diligent even though people are getting fatigued,” he said.

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