When Brewer High School discovered its first case of COVID-19 in late September, most of the school remained unaffected. Fewer than 10 people at the 700-student school had to quarantine due to close contact with the person who tested positive. None of those people ultimately showed symptoms or tested positive for the virus. And the high school remained open for in-person instruction.
The outcome of Brewer High’s positive coronavirus case — the only one identified so far this school year at a Bangor-area school — stands in stark contrast to what’s happened at some other Maine schools where COVID-19 has been detected, where dozens of students have had to quarantine due to close contact and schools have switched to fully remote instruction.
In Brewer, school could go on largely as normal because of a combination of factors — ongoing efforts this school year to keep students and staff in smaller groups that have limited interaction with other groups, strict mask-wearing and social-distancing rules, and the limited spread of COVID-19 in Penobscot County compared with other areas of Maine where schools have seen more cases.
“Whether or not a case comes into your school district, that’s just a luck of the draw,” said Brewer Superintendent Gregg Palmer, who wouldn’t say whether a student or staff member tested positive. “But if you’re doing everything you’re supposed to be doing, there’s a real good chance that everyone’s going to be okay.”
When the person who tested positive first notified the school department of the diagnosis, the school nurse contacted the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Palmer said. The superintendent also emailed parents about the case the same day. Through contact tracing, students and staff who had come in contact with the person were identified and required to quarantine for 14 days, and none of those people developed symptoms or tested positive during their quarantine. The school also stepped up its cleaning.
But the actions the school had taken in the weeks before were also important to preventing the virus’ spread.
Brewer, like most other school districts, has strict COVID-19 protocols in place this school year. Students at each school are divided into two cohorts, and each cohort attends school in person two days a week, limiting the number of students who interact with each other.
Students’ movement around the school building is restricted, further limiting contact among different groups of students. Younger students eat meals in their classrooms. High schoolers can use the cafeteria, but they sit 6 feet apart. During school hours, teachers and students wear masks and follow social distancing in classrooms, hallways and even outdoors.
“Schools are following all the rules all the time,” Palmer said. “Some people are masked in the community and some aren’t, but in school everybody’s masked all the time.”
Some 121 cases of COVID-19 have been detected in Maine schools in the past month. Over the course of one day this week, the state saw new cases in eight different schools as case numbers statewide have been rising back to numbers not seen since earlier in the pandemic.
Many of the schools that have seen individual cases and outbreaks — in which three or more cases are connected with a school — are in communities where the coronavirus has been actively spreading. Since students returned to in-person instruction this fall, more than a dozen Maine schools have had to temporarily shut down, ask large numbers of students to quarantine or seen outbreaks within the school.
But Brewer’s single COVID-19 case did not result in any of those scenarios. Palmer said the school proved fortunate that not many people had come in close contact with the person who tested positive.
When schools were planning to reopen in August, no one knew if bringing students back would lead to a sharp uptick in COVID-19 cases. So far, however, schools across the country don’t appear to have become the major sources of COVID-19 transmission that many had feared. Elementary schools especially have seen relatively few infections.
“Schools are more safe havens than they are super spreaders,” Palmer said. “That seems to be a national trend, and that was true for us because we had a case, it had minimal impact and it didn’t spread.”