A shortage of bus drivers because of exposures to COVID-19 forced the Bonny Eagle school district to cancel classes Tuesday and alter the schedule for the rest of the week, with high school and middle school students switching to remote classes.

It’s perhaps the first of what could be many school disruptions as Maine teachers and students return from winter break this week with new virus transmission, fueled by the omicron variant, at its highest level of the pandemic. While Maine is in the early stages of a surge fueled by the omicron variant, school districts in other states already are dealing with high levels of absent students and teachers, forcing some to return to remote learning. In Boston, for instance, more than 1,000 staff members were out Tuesday.

Maine School Administrative District 6 Superintendent Paul Penna said Tuesday that he was forced to cancel school because too many bus drivers had called out sick because of exposures to people infected by COVID-19. With 3,430 students, Buxton-based MSAD 6 is one of state’s biggest school districts and draws from a large geographic area, which makes transportation all the more important.

“We were sort of preparing for this during break and we were able to pull things off Monday, but there just weren’t enough drivers (Tuesday) to safely transport our students,” Penna said.

For the remainder of the week, Penna said the high school and middle school would shift to remote learning, with the hope that enough drivers will be back to work next week. The district’s elementary schools will resume in-person learning on Wednesday, he said.

MSAD 6 serves the towns of Buxton, Hollis, Limington, Standish and Frye Island. It has an estimated vaccination rate for eligible students of between 70-74 percent, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which is slightly lower than other area districts. The rates for school staff range widely, from a low of 58 percent at George A. Jack Elementary School in Standish to 87 percent at Buxton Center Elementary Schools. The towns in the district generally have lower overall vaccination rates than others in Cumberland and York counties.

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SOME FRUSTRATION

Many SAD 6 parents commented on the Facebook post announcing the sudden closure of school Tuesday, expressing frustration that the district did not plan for a remote learning option Tuesday and did not allow parents who don’t rely on buses to drop their children off at school.

Penna said he understands those frustrations and hopes parents understand the district’s staff is doing its best.

Last week, the Maine Department of Education modified its guidance to give schools more flexibility to bring children and staff members back to school sooner after they test positive or if they are considered a close contact.

But with the virus spreading rapidly throughout the state, there are still likely to be an abundance of absences, both among students and staff members, which could force administrators to make difficult decisions. Many already have been dealing with staff shortages worsened by the pandemic, and bus driver shortages, in particular, have already disrupted some after-school activities.

Maine DOE spokeswoman Kelli Deveaux said Tuesday that the department had not heard of an increase in absences.

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“Some schools have anecdotally shared (or reported to their community) the number of cases reported during the vacation time; this can sound high when reporting one number for what could be up to 14 days of cases,” she said.

Portland Public Schools Superintendent Xavier Botana announced changes to the district’s protocols concerning COVID-19 during Tuesday night’s meeting of the board of education.

“It’s clear that COVID is showing no signs of abating,” Botana told the board.

PORTLAND SHORTENS QUARANTINE

Botana said that as of Jan. 10 the quarantine period for students will be shortened from 10 days to five days, a reduction recommended last week by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Maine Department of Education. In order to return to in-person learning, a student in quarantine must exhibit symptoms that are “resolving,” Botana said. That could mean going without a fever for 24 hours.

“This will free our school nurses up,” he said.

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In addition to reducing the quarantine period, Botana said the district will start accepting results from home COVID-19 test kits. A student who wants to return to in-person learning must provide evidence of two negative home tests over a 24-hour period.

Botana encouraged faculty and staff to take advantage of the district’s supply of surgical grade masks instead of using cloth face coverings. A surgical mask such as an N95 mask is believed to provide greater protection against omicron. Botana said the district has about 15,000 such masks in storage, admitting that the supply has not been heavily tapped.

In-person learning in Portland schools will continue unless conditions change, Botana.

“We are going to do all we can to keep open and learning in-person,” board Chairwoman Emily Figdor added.

Jeremy Ray, superintendent of schools in Biddeford, Saco and Dayton, said his schools are seeing more positive cases this week than ever, but he called switching to remote learning a “last resort” option.

‘ALL HANDS ON DECK’

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“It’s all hands on deck,” he said. “We have teachers stepping up to cover here and there, but we need to keep kids in school.”

Ray said having students in classrooms is beneficial from a public health standpoint because of pooled testing, which includes periodic testing of groups of students to identify cases early. He said when schools follow guidance from the CDC, data has shown that the virus is not spreading in class, but students who are infected at home or in their communities often learn if they are positive from pooled testing.

With schools returning from the winter break on Monday, many were still trying to figure out Tuesday just how many students and staff were affected.

Yarmouth Superintendent Andrew Dolloff wrote to parents on Monday that the district had at least 40 positive cases of COVID-19 in its school community as schools reopened on Monday. That compares to a total of 80 cases during the entire first half of the school year. Yarmouth has about 1,600 students.

Steven Bailey, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, said the real impact on absences and staff shortages may not be known until the end of this week or into next week.

In Falmouth, interim superintendent Gretchen McNulty informed parents that the department reported 97 positive tests between Dec. 22 and Jan. 3, although most did not involve school-related close contacts.

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“The current numbers are concerning, and we anticipate this week’s pooled testing in the younger grades may identify more positive cases,” she wrote. “We want you to know that we are working continuously to ensure our schools are safe for all students and staff. We maintain the goal of remaining open and operational, and district leaders and staff have been proactively and creatively seeking to address possible staffing challenges.

“At the same time, we recognize that things can change quickly, and we continue to review and update a range of plans that will allow us to respond accordingly to ensure continuity of learning for our students.”

Deveaux, the DOE spokeswoman, said schools districts have been working hard throughout the pandemic to keep students and staff safe and this week is no exception.

“We continue to encourage schools, staff and students to sign up for the free and highly effective pooled testing program as an additional layer of safety and prevention,” she said.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report

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