Van Buren District Secondary School Credit: Don Eno / St. John Valley Times

VAN BUREN, Maine — Van Buren’s high school students are attending school remotely Monday after a staff member who came into contact with a large majority of the student body tested positive for COVID-19.

Van Buren is the first Maine school to go fully remote in the new school year, although it will be only for a day. That said, cases have been identified in several other schools, including each of the other three St. John Valley school districts as well as in Mars Hill.

Students who are vaccinated or who did not come into contact with this staff member will return to in-person learning on Tuesday, where they will be required to wear masks for the next 10 days.

The rest of the unvaccinated students — roughly half of all high school students — have to quarantine for the same period, and attend school remotely, Superintendent Elaine Boulier said.

The school has only been in session for three days, one of which was cut short due to a heat advisory, and already is grappling with the impact of even one COVID-19 case: a fact Boulier said “doesn’t bode well” for the school year.

Masks are optional in the school district, but all people who come into contact with the COVID-19 positive person, regardless of whether they choose to wear a mask, must quarantine accordingly.

But the district will not reevaluate its optional mask policy unless further cases emerge, Boulier said.

The Van Buren soccer team, which has been fully vaccinated, will still play Wisdom High school Monday at 4 p.m., Athletic Director Matt Rossignol said. The Van Buren team will not wear masks. Wisdom in Frenchville has an in-class mask mandate, and the athletic director was not immediately available to comment on whether players would wear masks during Monday night’s game. 

The prospect of a sudden return to online learning like this motivated the school board in Frenchville, SAD 33, to uphold its mask mandate last week, despite survey data showing optional masking was preferred among students, parents and teachers.

In schools where masks are mandated, the Department of Education does not require close contacts to quarantine, whether or not they are vaccinated, so long as they didn’t physically touch the person with COVID-19.

The SAD 24 building in Van Buren also houses elementary and middle school students who learn in a separate wing from the high school, and Boulier said there is no contact between the different age groups during the day. Those students will continue in-person learning as planned, unless further cases emerge.

Only one high school staff member qualifies as a close contact and is being asked to follow the same precautions as students.

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the school district Van Buren school is in.

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Hannah Catlin

Hannah Catlin is a reporter at the St. John Valley Times/Fiddlehead Focus in Madawaska, Maine.