Maine schools now account for nearly 70 percent of the state’s active COVID-19 outbreaks, in another sign of how the virus is spreading more actively among younger people as adults get vaccinated.
But that doesn’t mean the virus is spreading rampantly within schools, where strict masking and social distancing and other arrangements to minimize student contact have kept transmission in check. Rather, the outbreaks are more a reflection of students contracting the virus outside of school, according to school officials and an expert who has tracked COVID-19 cases in schools nationwide.
Public and private K-12 schools in Maine are the sites of 52 of 75 active outbreaks listed by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention this week. But school-related cases represent only 10 percent of the state’s total cases over the past month. Only one school has recorded an outbreak with more than 20 cases.
Most COVID-19 cases nationwide in children do not occur from classroom spread, said Emily Oster, a Brown University economist who has tracked school cases through the COVID-19 School Response Dashboard.
Children are more likely to contract the virus from family members or, less commonly, from out-of-school activities such as sports, Oster said. That seemed to hold true even when there were high rates of COVID-19 in communities during the early winter peak in Maine and the U.S.
“Children are less likely to be infected, in general, than adults,” Oster said. “A caveat is that as all adults get vaccinated, we are likely to see relatively higher rates in children.”
In Lewiston’s public schools, 32 students have tested positive since April 1, almost a third of all cases in the school department since 2021 began, Superintendent Jake Langlais said. He believes the rise is tied to several factors: warmer weather, the recent Easter holiday and COVID-19 fatigue after a year of restrictions.
“People are tired of these rules,” Langlais said. “I think there’s a sense of impatience.”
As cases rise, Langlais is working to convince parents of the importance of symptom checks and not sending their children to school sick. While schools often reflect the communities where they’re located, the restrictions in place are the only things that may be keeping cases from skyrocketing, Langlais said.
“I don’t think we’ve had evidence of what you call community spread within our schools,” Langlais said. “But, I also think that if we weren’t taking the proper measures that we’ve been taking…we’d absolutely have that issue.”
The rise in school-related cases may be a reflection of the vaccine rollout. While all Maine adults are now eligible to be vaccinated, most of the K-12 student population is not. The only students who are eligible are those 16 and older, and those younger than 18 can only receive one of the two authorized vaccines — the Pfizer vaccine, which has been more widely available in the state’s larger population centers than in more rural areas.
So far, 16 percent of Mainers ages 16-19 have received their first shot after becoming eligible on April 7, according to Maine CDC data. While some colleges, including Bowdoin College in Brunswick, will begin requiring that students be vaccinated before arriving on campus in the fall, no such requirement is on the horizon for K-12 schools.
Administrators said they were unsure how many of their students had received the vaccine and were not tracking it. Kathy Harris-Smedberg, the interim school superintendent in Bangor, said it remains to be seen what restrictions the city’s schools will have in place next fall. Her team is preparing for a number of options depending on the virus’ prevalence, she said.
“Ideally, I would say that I would like to have all students in school every day, five days a week,” Harris-Smedberg said. But she said that arrangement may require keeping COVID-19 restrictions, including masking and social distancing, in place. Bangor students have been able to attend school in person five days a week this school year, with occasional interruptions when students, staff and bus drivers have been infected with COVID-19.
Bangor High School is currently the site of an active outbreak, with five cases, according to the Maine CDC.
Bangor Christian Schools’ middle and high schools have been the site of Maine’s largest school outbreak, with 27 COVID-19 cases reported over the past month, according to Maine CDC data.
Principal Martha Boone said the Maine CDC hadn’t provided specific information on the cause of the outbreak, but she said it appeared that most of the transmission came from interaction between Bangor Christian students outside of school.
Students learned remotely for about a week because of the outbreak but are now back to in-person classes. In many ways, the remote learning session due to the outbreak was less difficult than the abrupt switch to online learning in March 2020, Boone said. The recent shift had an end date.
While Boone said instruction at Bangor Christian Schools had largely gone unchanged during COVID-19, staff have needed to provide more emotional and spiritual support to a student body facing a complex and uncertain pandemic.
“Often, school is the only consistently safe place that a lot of kids have,” Boone said.
BDN writer Caitlin Andrews contributed to this report.