Guidance Director Sadie Shaw, right, welcomes students as they enter Central Aroostook Junior/Senior High School in Mars Hill on Wednesday, Aug. 12. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — As schools across Maine get set to return from holiday break, state education officials are closely monitoring Penobscot and Aroostook counties as they update the color coded system on the safety of opening for in-person classes.

While the counties remained green Thursday in an update to the advisory designation listing released by the Department of Education, officials said positivity rates in the counties increased above the statewide average over the last two weeks.

The department uses a color-coded traffic light designation for schools in different counties based on the rate of spread of COVID-19 in each area.

Androscoggin, Cumberland, Oxford and York counties remain yellow in the new designation as they continue to have a high number of cases. Maine’s 10 other counties — Franklin, Hancock, Kennebec, Knox, Lincoln, Piscataquis, Sagadahoc, Somerset, Waldo and Washington counties — remain green. No counties were designated red.

Penobscot and Aroostook counties have seen a rapid rise of new cases in recent days. On Thursday, health officials reported 702 new COVID-19 cases across the state, including 79 in Penobscot County and 32 in Aroostook County.

A rise in cases has been noticeable in Aroostook County in recent weeks, a region once relatively untouched by the virus. Outbreaks at three nursing homes across The County have led to seven deaths over the past week, along with numerous infections. And an outbreak at the Presque Isle Rehab and Nursing Center that began last month killed five and infected more than two dozen.

Amid the rise in cases, several school districts are pushing forward with in-person learning, including SAD 1 in Presque Isle, The County’s largest district. Superintendent Ben Greenlaw said Wednesday that students will return to in-person classes on Jan. 4 after no active cases remained from two COVID-19 outbreaks in its schools earlier in the month.

Schools given the green light by the state are advised to be open to in-person learning if they can abide by safety regulations, while schools in counties designated yellow are asked to consider “additional precautions” or hybrid learning to reduce the number of students in schools at a time.

Schools designated red are asked not to open to in-person learning.

The designation from the department is not legally binding for Maine’s schools, whose educational plans are crafted by school boards across the state, but it helps school officials weigh the risks and benefits of keeping schools open amid the spread of the disease.

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