The entrance of Brunswick High School. C. Thacher Carter / The Times Record

Brunswick High is on track to reopen to in-person learning on Tuesday following a week of remote instruction due to a surge in COVID-19 cases.

The district’s superintendent, Phil Potenziano, made the announcement last Saturday, and remote learning began Tuesday, Jan. 11. At the end of last week, the district was reporting 43 active cases of COVID-19 in the high school. As of Thursday, the number of active cases had decreased to 30.

Potenziano said the decision to go remote was made because of student and staff absences. Total enrollment at Brunswick High is 754 students, and at the end of last week, 219 were absent. In addition, nine pooled testing samples came back positive late last week, which meant about 180 more students needed to be tested for the virus.

All together these issues compromised the department’s ability to safely open the school, Potenziano said. Sports and extra-curriculars were postponed, and midterm exams, which were scheduled for this week, were canceled.

“Every indication at this point appears as though we should be fine for Tuesday,” said Potenziano at Wednesday’s school board meeting.

There are multiple components that go into deciding whether a school will go or stay remote, according to Assistant Superintendent Shawn Lambert. A high volume of COVID-19 cases is one factor, Lambert said, but in-person learning could also be called off due to staff absences across multiple departments. For example, a shortage of employees in the cafeteria could leave the school unable to feed students and a lack of bus drivers could make transportation impossible.

So far this school year, 15 out of the approximately 118 staff members at Brunswick High have been diagnosed with COVID-19, 12 of whom since Dec. 1. In addition to the high school, COVID-19 related staffing challenges throughout the district continue to present challenges, Potenziano said.

“Everybody is literally doing everything they can to keep our schools open,” said Potenziano, adding “we want our students in school, we desperately want our students in school, we know that’s where they should be.”

The reaction to the news from Brunswick High community members varied.

“My opinion as a grandmother of a junior who is actively playing basketball is that all the schools in the entire state should be shut down to remote learning for a week so that covid is not spread anymore,” said Brunswick resident Marge Fosman, adding “as long as others remain open it will continue to spread.”

Brunswick resident Alicia Heyburn, whose son attends the high school, said she fully trusts and supports the district’s decision to go remote, and that communication from the department about the transition has been excellent.

“I was receiving multiple emails a day that my son was a ‘close contact’ with someone who had tested positive,” said Heyburn. “It was confusing for me to keep up with the messages and must have been overwhelming for school nursing staff to try to unravel the tangle of contract tracing to properly notify families.”

“Instead of school feeling like a positive experience, it was feeling like a threatening space, and I imagine the students felt that threat as stress, which never facilitates an open mind or productive learning.”

Brunswick High School senior Brianna Lemont raised concerns with the department’s decision, citing, in part, worries that remote learning might become the standard again.

“I want to finish my senior year strong and be able to play my sports and see my classmates and see my teachers,” said Lemont. “Because I can promise I did remote learning all last year and I did not form a single bond with any of my teachers, not a strong one at least.”

Brunswick School Department is not the only district to pivot to remote learning due to an uptick in COVID-19 cases. On Jan. 10, the Portland Press Herald reported that schools in Biddeford, Saco, Kennebunk, Gorham, Scarborough, Windham and Portland also made the switch.

Brunswick continues to require indoor masking in all school buildings.

Following an update to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on Wednesday, the Brunswick School Department announced that the district will no longer contact trace staff and students who test positive for COVID-19.

At Wednesday’s meeting, school board members approved bonus payments for staff that provide proof of vaccination. Those that received a single Johnson & Johnson dose or a second dose of Pfizer or Moderna will receive $100. Staff who provide proof of a booster vaccine will receive an additional $100.

As of Thursday, there were 129 actives cases of COVID-19 throughout the Brunswick School Department. Kate Furbish Elementary school was reporting the most at 41 cases.

In total, 296 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the district this school year.

The Maine CDC estimates that 90-94% of eligible students in the Brunswick School Department are vaccinated.

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