Scarborough High School is closed to in-person instruction until Tuesday, Jan. 18. File photo

SCARBOROUGH — Many school districts in southern Maine have become overwhelmed by staffing shortages and the surge of COVID-19 cases, leading to the return to remote learning at some schools in the area last week. Among them was Scarborough High School that closed from Jan. 11 through the remainder of the week and was to return to in-person learning on Jan. 18.

Biddeford, Saco, Kennebunk, Brunswick, Gorham and Portland were among  other southern Maine districts where some of the schools reverted to remote learning for most of last week. On Jan. 13, School Administrative District 51 in Cumberland and North Yarmouth joined a growing list of districts forced into remote learning by COVID-19.

Jan. 13 was the same day the state set a record for the total number of students and staff infected with the coronavirus, up to that point.

Case numbers published by the Maine Department of Education showed as of Jan. 13 that there were a record 6,459 cases of COVID-19 in Maine schools, a 30.6 percent increase over the 4,946 cases reported the previous week after students and staff returned from winter break. The 6,459 cases surpass the previous record of 6,200 cases reported in mid-December before students went on winter break.

Many educators hoped that remote learning was a thing of the past, but due to holiday gatherings, other social events and the spread of the contagious Omicron variant of COVID, many public schools that returned from winter break on Jan. 3 had reported high numbers of infectious students, staff and teachers.

Gorham and Windham high schools went to remote learning Tuesday and Wednesday because of staffing shortages due to the number of staff members who tested positive for the virus earlier in the week. All Portland public schools continued to hold in-person classes, except the Gerald E. Talbot Community School where staffing shortages forced 100 kindergarten and special education students to revert to remote learning. Those students were expected to return to in-person learning this week.

The Scarborough School Department decided Jan. 10 to have the Scarborough High School go to remote learning for the rest of that week. There had been 74 confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the high school as of Jan. 3 and on Monday, Jan. 10, there were 26 more cases confirmed. All in-person extracurricular activities at the high school were suspended while students were going to school remotely. Scarborough High School was to return to full in-person learning on Tuesday Jan. 18 and only switched to remote learning from Jan. 11 to Jan. 14.

“Due to the high number of COVID positive cases and approximately 15 percent of Scarborough High School student absences due to illness, Scarborough High School will be closed to in-person learning and switching to remote learning starting tomorrow, Tuesday, Jan. 11,” Scarborough Superintendent Geoffrey Bruno said on Jan. 10

On Jan. 6, the Scarborough School Board met with Bruno to discuss several matters including the updated Maine Department of Education and CDC standard operating protocols (SOP) for the response to the COVID-19 positive cases of Dec. 30.

“Our current mitigation strategies and protocols related to COVID-19 will continue to be implemented as presented and described during the January 6th BOE (Board of Education) meeting,” said Bruno.

The new SOP for an individual who tests positive is that they should isolate for five days from the onset of symptoms from the date of their positive test. If a person has no symptoms or symptoms have resolved after five days, one can leave their home and return to school. They must continue to wear a mask around others in the community for at least five additional days.

Close contacts must wear a mask regardless of vaccination status due to the district taking part in universal mask wearing. Students and staff can continue to take part in school and school activities when they are in close contact. The Maine CDC recommends testing five days after exposure if not participating in weekly pooled testing at the school. Pool testing has been continuing for grades K-2 schools with the consent of a parent.

Although the Maine Department of Education on Jan. 12 issued a statement saying the Maine CDC revised the SOP for schools and now “permits schools with universal masking policies to suspend contact tracing if they are not able to conduct it effectively.” It also stated that “schools that have the resources to contact trace effectively are encouraged to continue doing so.”

“We will continue to communicate all positive cases to the school community and alert families when there is a positive case reported in a child’s class, ” Bruno said.

The Maine CDC will open an epidemiological investigation in a school when at least 15 percent of students and staff are absent due to an illness. If a student tests positive for COVID-19, parents should fill out the form given on the Scarborough schools website, and the school nurse will contact as needed. The Maine CDC will then follow up with the school to receive additional information and determine if the report meets the outbreak status. The information the Maine CDC will collect includes the number of COVID-19 positive students and staff, the number by test type, the number of students or staff that are in quarantine and not in school, and the number of students and staff working or attending school remotely.

“With respect to mitigation, our reopening plan, approved by the BOE in the fall, follows Maine and federal CDC guidelines, requires universal masking for all students and staff, and implements pooled testing in all schools K-12,” Bruno said. “Scarborough was also one of the first districts in the state to host vaccine clinics for our families with students under the age of 12. It has been a whole community effort.”

Information about the COVID-19 protocols and procedure can be found on the Scarborough Schools website at https://www.scarboroughschools.org/covid-19

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