Dr. John Older, a physician at Houlton Regional Hospital, speaks to the RSU 29 school board during Monday night's monthly meeting. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

HOULTON, Maine — Citing a large spike in the number of students that would need to be quarantined, RSU 29 has decided to switch to a remote learning model for all of its students starting Tuesday.

The move shuts down the entire district, including all sports activities, until Monday, Sept. 27.

“The data we received today is staggering,” RSU 29 Superintendent Richard Lyons said. “A number of students in grade seven have tested positive and we predict that as many as 75 percent of our [middle school] children will have to stay home. And we predict conservatively that 25 percent of the high school would also have to remove themselves from school.”

RSU 29 has a student population of about 1,300 students.

The Houlton district is not the first in Aroostook County to switch to a remote learning model, nor will it likely be the last given the rising number of cases. Less than a week into their fall semesters, Van Buren and Caribou high schools switched to a  remote learning system after too many cases among the staff and student body were discovered. Fort Fairfield and Limestone schools both postponed the start of their school years for similar reasons. Those schools have since rebounded.

The RSU 29 board of directors learned of the high number of students who have been identified as close contacts during Monday’s board meeting.

“Today after hours of deliberation with our administrative team, it is very obvious that we have a significant outbreak in our schools,” Lyons said. “Thus I have decided to move [RSU 29] from in-person teaching to teaching remotely for Pre-k to grade 12.”

Houlton Elementary School has been operating in a remote-learning model since Sept. 8, when 20 percent of the entire student population, or 68 children, were in quarantine as close contacts. The school, which is for Pre-k to second-graders, had hoped to return to the classroom on Sept. 20, but that plan has been scrapped and all students will do remote learning until Sept. 27.

Lyons said the data was only preliminary, and his percentages could actually be much higher, but he felt it was in the best interest of the district to switch to the remote model given that nearly 200 students were likely close contacts to those infected.

Since school started Aug. 30, the district has had 29 positive cases — either students or staff. As of Monday evening, there were eight active cases, Holly Hodgkin, the director of health services for RSU 29, said.

No official board vote was taken on the switch to remote learning. Instead the board gave consensus approval to the superintendent’s recommendation.

Parents were notified by an automated phone message around 7:30 p.m. Monday.

No sporting activities of any kind will be allowed during the two-week closure, including practices, according to Jon Solomon, RSU 29’s athletic director. RSU 29 students who also participate in the Region 2 School of Applied Technology will not be allowed to attend those classes during the time that the district is in remote learning status.

Shawn Anderson, CEO for Houlton Regional Hospital; Dr. John Older, a physician at the hospital, and Ellen Bartlett, specialist for disease prevention and control at the hospital, all spoke to the board about the status of COVID-19 in the greater Houlton community.

“I am not an alarmist, but I am a realist,” Anderson said. “I know what we are seeing in our community and it is not favorable. Aroostook and Penobscot counties are some of the hottest spots in the state for COVID activity.”

Anderson said the hospital has essentially been forced into a “defensive posture” to deal with the rising number of cases. He said all four of the Aroostook County hospitals (Houlton Regional, Northern Light in Presque Isle, Cary Medical Center and Northern Maine Medical Center) were all small hospitals and not positioned for a pediatric or adolescent outbreak.

“We need to do the very best we can to keep our children safe,” he said. “COVID vaccinations for the 2-12 year old population are likely months away [from approval]. At best it will be the end of the year.”

Older, a 21-year resident of Houlton and the hospital director, said it was becoming increasingly difficult to see the number of residents coming into the health care facility with COVID-19.

“What I see first hand is people dying from COVID,” he said. “We have an entire wing caring for patients with COVID. It’s heartbreaking. Some patients are so short of breath, they can’t chew food or move from a chair to a bed. The public doesn’t see it, but I do every single day.”

He said last week, more than 50 percent of the entire admissions to the hospital were COVID-19 patients. Of those, 80 percent were unvaccinated.

Prior to learning of the district’s plans to go fully remote, residents David Carpenter and Vanessa McCausland, both of Littleton, asked the board to reconsider its mask mandate policy.

“With all the safety features we have in place, there is no reason to keep wearing masks,” Carpenter said.

Lyons said the decision to switch to remote did not come easily.

“This is a very difficult time and one that I have never experienced to this magnitude,” Lyons said. “When you stand back and listen to our experts, the choice is to go remote for the remainder of this week and next week.The data is there and it is best for us to take a break, have our children get healthy and then reconvene.”