Lola Strom, right, and Jahlena Peters, both 15-year-old sophomores, talk about their first day of classes at South Portland High School on Tuesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Students streamed out of South Portland High School at precisely 2:20 p.m. Tuesday, a typical end to the first day of a new school year.

But it looked almost like a flashback to 2019.

Gone were the masks. Also gone were the social distancing rules, the pooled testing programs and other COVID-19 precautions that prevailed during the past two school years.

“I’m just glad to have a normal school year,” said Schilo Gatore, 16, a junior. “I haven’t had one since I got to high school.”

Gatore was finishing eighth grade when the pandemic hit in March 2020. In his freshman year, most schools in Maine operated on a hybrid schedule, with two days of classes in person and three days learning remotely. Last year, school began with a full five days per week in the classrooms, but students were required to wear masks and follow a list of restrictions to reduce the risks of outbreaks.

This year is back to near-normal, the result of vaccine access and other tools to contain the virus. And the students interviewed said it’s a good thing.


Lola Strom, a 15-year-old sophomore, said this year is “just different” in a better way, because in 2021 they started the school year wearing masks and couldn’t be near other students.

Jahlena Peters, also a South Portland High School sophomore, said last year “teachers would yell at you for giving other students hugs and high-fives.”

Schilo Gatore, 16, outside of South Portland High after the first day of school on Tuesday. Gatore said this feels like the start of his first, “real,” year of high school because the pandemic arrived during his freshman year. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The return to normal also is a relief to school officials.

John Suttie, superintendent for Old Orchard Beach schools, said it was much easier to plan for the first day of the 2022-23 school year than it was to prepare for back-to-school days the past two summers.

Suttie and other superintendents had to deal with the logistics of running buses at half capacity to maintain social distancing, enforcing mask rules, contact tracing people who fell ill from the virus, restricting gatherings and canceling dances and events. Just getting school operating was an “astonishing high-wire act.”

“This summer looks very different than the last two and much more normal,” Suttie said. “It seems like the summer of 2019, getting ready for a regular school year.”


Suttie said even something as routine as eating lunch in the cafeteria required rethinking. “We had to buy new furniture so that the desks in the cafeteria could all face the same way,” Suttie said.


COVID-19 is still with us, and cases have been rising in Maine in recent weeks. But experts say the tools that now exist to deal with the infectious disease mean schools can return to near-normal.

“This school year should resemble the pre-COVID era much more so than in the previous two years,” Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an interview Tuesday.

Shah said the reason masking is no longer a requirement is because of the availability of vaccines to blunt the impact of COVID-19.

“Vaccines are the big player on the field,” Shah said. “It’s really what’s doing the bulk of the work.”


One major reason for caution at the start of the 2021-22 school year was the lack of vaccinations available for elementary school students. Vaccines were approved for that age group in October 2021.

While vaccination rates for young children lag other age groups, a significant portion of students have now been immunized for the first time. The federal government also is on the verge of approving new omicron-targeting boosters for those ages 12 and older.

Maine’s vaccination rate for school-age children is much higher than the national average, with 70.4 percent of 12- to 19-year-olds in Maine fully vaccinated against COVID-19, compared with 60.4 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds nationally. The U.S. CDC and Maine CDC have slight differences in the age categories for vaccination statistics.

Among 5- to 11-year-olds, Maine reports 43.3 percent are fully vaccinated compared with 30.5 percent nationally. In Cumberland County, student vaccination rates are even higher, with 68 percent of 5- to 11-year-olds and 85 percent of 12- to 19-year-olds fully vaccinated.

Robert Long, Maine CDC spokesman, said the state’s Public Health Nursing Program will “offer COVID-19 vaccine clinics to schools that reach out to them.”



Dr. Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth, the parent entity of Maine Medical Center in Portland and a near-statewide health care system, said the “wall of immunity” from vaccinations and prior infections is helping to keep COVID-19 from threatening to upend society like it did in 2020 and 2021.

“We’re somewhere between COVID-19 being an emergency and living with COVID-19 as a routine disease,” Mills said.

In addition to vaccines, there now also are drugs to treat COVID-19 and widely available at-home tests. With all the tools available to control COVID-19, rules around gathering sizes, contact tracing and quarantine and isolation could be relaxed, Mills said.

Under the U.S. CDC’s new policy, which Maine has adopted, students and staff who fall ill with COVID-19 can return to school after five days, as long as they are feeling well. Masking upon return to school is strongly recommended, but not required. Those who are exposed but have not fallen ill do not need to quarantine.

Shah said COVID-19 is now being treated much more like how the Maine CDC would respond to other infectious diseases, such as influenza.

“We’re not turning off the lights and going home,” Shah said. “We still have a fleet of school nurses and a (Maine CDC) epidemiological team devoted to schools. The pandemic is still very much with us, and there will be kids who get COVID and other respiratory illnesses this year. It’s less that the virus has changed, and more that we have a far better ability to manage, prevent and treat it when it does happen.”

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