A sign at the main entrance of Asa Adams Elementary School in Orono advises that face coverings are required in the building. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

Five confirmed cases of COVID-19 at Orono’s Asa C. Adams Elementary School have forced 28 students into quarantine due to exposure just days into the new school year.

The situation highlights how rampantly COVID-19 is spreading in Penobscot County as schools return to full-time, in-person learning this fall. But it also shows that elementary-age students who aren’t yet eligible to be vaccinated are more likely than older, vaccinated students to be forced to quarantine due to coronavirus cases in school.

In addition to the five cases at Asa Adams, Orono has also seen one case at its middle school, though no close contacts have had to quarantine because of it, Superintendent Meredith Higgins said.

In response to the cases, Orono has reinstituted mandatory mask-wearing during recess, a measure it had retired at the end of last school year. Orono schools are already requiring that students wear masks while indoors. The school board will also meet Wednesday to discuss other potential measures aimed at stemming the spread of COVID-19 at school, Higgins said.

“I’ve learned with COVID that if we think we have it all figured out, then we certainly misjudged the situation we’re in,” she said.

Asa Adams Elementary School serves students from pre-K through fifth grade. Its enrollment last school year was about 290 students, meaning close to 10 percent of students have to quarantine due to the COVID-19 cases.

While that’s a substantial portion of the student body, one case last year could have shut down an entire school, Higgins said. Since last year, vaccines have become widely available, and updated state guidelines mean fewer students have to quarantine if they’re exposed to a student who’s tested positive.

“Last year, we had situations where we had over 100 students in quarantine,” Higgins said. “I would like that number to be zero, but I think we’ve made progress.”

Under those state guidelines, students who are masked, have no symptoms and have stayed at least 3 feet away from someone who tests positive for COVID-19 don’t have to quarantine because of the potential exposure. Fully vaccinated students and adults don’t have to quarantine because of potential exposure, either, though elementary school-age students aren’t eligible to be vaccinated, which means quarantines are more likely for younger students.

“I would just ask parents to know we’re following the guidelines and it is always something that they can ask questions about, but we’re following the guidance we have been given,” Higgins said. “I hope this isn’t the new normal we have to get used to, but that families become more familiar with the process.”

The Orono schools’ COVID-19 cases are far from the only ones to be detected as school gets underway.

Bangor High School detected a case last week on the second day of school, and the city has since reported one case each at the Abraham Lincoln and Fruit Street schools, which both serves students in pre-K through third grade.

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Sawyer Loftus

Sawyer Loftus is a reporter covering Old Town, Orono and the surrounding areas. A recent graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he's worked for Vermont Public Radio, The...