State education officials are warning schools in York County that it’s no longer safe for them to reopen in person full time as the county has seen five new coronavirus outbreaks in the past two weeks.
The Maine Department of Education had given schools in all 16 counties a green light to reopen since it unveiled its color-coded designations for school safety at the end of July.
But last week, while the state continued to give schools in every county a green light, it warned that it would reassess the designation for Penobscot and York counties this week due to ongoing outbreaks. On Friday, the state Department of Education downgraded York County’s designation from green to yellow, signaling that schools in the county should combine in-person with remote learning.
The state has now tied 147 cases and two deaths to an Aug. 7 wedding in the Millinocket area. Health officials have linked at least two secondary outbreaks, at the York County Jail and a rehabilitation center in Madison, to the wedding. There’s also an outbreak of at least 10 cases at Sanford Calvary Baptist Church in York County, whose pastor officiated the Millinocket-area wedding. And the state is still working to contain an outbreak involving multiple York County fire departments.
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York County in recent days has emerged as a particular area of concern for the state, prompting the change from green to yellow. The county’s rate of new cases and its rate of coronavirus tests coming back positive have been about triple the rest of the state over the past two weeks. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said Thursday that half of the state’s active virus outbreaks are in York County. The county has also seen a spike in cases not connected to the known outbreaks in the county, suggesting that the virus is spreading in the community.
York County has seen 155 new cases over the past two weeks, according to Maine CDC data, almost three times more than the more populous Cumberland County — which has had Maine’s highest infection rate throughout the pandemic — has seen in that time.
Since all York County schools already planned to reopen using a hybrid model, the reassessment should have a limited effect on their reopening plans. But since the county is now designated yellow, the state suggests further precautions to limit the spread of the virus, including canceling extracurricular activities and limiting the numbers of people in the school building.
Many schools in Penobscot County opened this week, with some school districts, including Bangor, bringing a majority of students back full-time for in-person instruction. A number of other Bangor-area districts, including Brewer and Hampden-based Regional School Unit 22, chose to bring students back to school two days a week, and teach remotely the rest.
In the Millinocket area, schools already chose to delay their opening by two weeks. East Millinocket, where a number of staff members — including the school superintendent — and students have tested positive, switched to a fully remote start to the school year.
In York County, students in some of the largest districts, such as Biddeford and Saco, start returning next week.
Even with the green light for the whole state, most Maine school districts had been employing some variation of a hybrid model.
“The designations will continue to be updated every two weeks, and more frequently if and when circumstances make this advisable,” Department of Education spokesperson Kelli Deveaux said. “At any point during an unpredictable and evolving pandemic, these designations may change.”
Under the department’s color-coded system, counties designated green can bring students back full-time for in-person learning, those designated yellow can use a hybrid approach that combines remote and in-person instruction, and the state recommends fully remote learning for counties designated red.