Hermon School Department nurse Angie Scripture, center, speaks as she is flanked by fellow nurses Tiffany Howard, left, and Nicole LaRochelle, right, in a Hermon School Committee meeting on Monday. The nurses described themselves as "overwhelmed" amid the coronavirus outbreaks in the district. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

School administrators in Hermon are spending the majority of their time trying to stem the spread of COVID-19 rather than focusing on education as a new school year defined by the delta variant’s spread gets underway.

Administrators and nurses in the town said during a school committee meeting Monday that they were already overwhelmed early in the school year, especially as coronavirus outbreaks have temporarily sent their middle and high schools remote.

Hermon’s middle and high schools are remote this week after dozens of students tested positive for the virus last week. Students in those schools will continue to be remote at least until Monday.

The mounting work of trying to stem COVID-19’s spread has become a common frustration for educators across Maine as they try to keep students in classrooms amid the highly transmissible delta variant.

“As a principal, watching my empty building this week [was] a little frustrating,” Hermon Middle School Principal Micah Grant said.

Many officials were also frustrated with state rules on quarantining. While universal masking in schools can prevent lengthy quarantines for students who were close contacts of coronavirus cases, a universal masking policy had not prevented the shift to remote learning.

The Hermon School Committee voted to not require masks last month before reversing that policy a week later amid a rise in local cases and outbreaks at various Aroostook County schools that didn’t have mask requirements.

In the face of state rules around quarantines, it’s essential that more students opt into the school department’s pool testing program, Superintendent Jim Chasse said. Participation in regular pool testing is another way students potentially exposed to the virus can avoid lengthy quarantines. Vaccination is another way around quarantines.

That is happening to some extent.

Hundreds of Hermon High School students have shown proof of vaccination and signed up for pool testing since the outbreak began. Prior to the outbreak, 156 had shown proof of vaccination and 55 unvaccinated students were enrolled in pool testing. Now, 233 students have shown evidence of vaccination and 156 unvaccinated students enrolled in pool testing, Principal Brian Walsh said.  

If every student had been enrolled in pool testing, the middle and high schools would be in school right now, Chasse said. He said a requirement that students and staff enroll in pool testing could be a possibility.

The school department’s team of nurses is working after school hours and on weekends, losing time with their families, they said. Nursing staff have also had to deal with angry phone calls from parents as they inform them that their children have COVID-19 or were in close contact with someone who tested positive.

“The anger is directed at the messenger right now,” nurse Tiffany Howard said. “And, unfortunately, we’re in a position where there’s nothing that we can do about this.”

The school had recently hired another nurse, Nicole LaRochelle, to help with pool testing and join a three-nurse team that includes Howard and Angie Scripture. On Monday, however, some school committee members said another nurse would be necessary, though no vote was taken to hire one.

Even amid the outbreaks, some parents downplayed the virus in public comments at the committee meeting, saying that it was unclear why students needed to go remote when the hospitalization and death rate for children was so low in Maine. One parent said the district should openly defy state authorities, even if it risked federal funding.

But in a school district that has been sharply divided on coronavirus restrictions, others adamantly disagreed. It was clear that the way to prevent future outbreaks was to get far more eligible students vaccinated and more enrolled in pool testing, Joshua Kelsey said.

Parents in town needed to take the science around the virus more seriously, he said.

“I’m not willing to sacrifice any kids,” Kelsey said, noting that nearly 500 children have died from the coronavirus nationwide since the start of the pandemic, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The outbreaks have come as Hermon’s school department has seen rapid growth this school year. The number of students at the high school has grown by 66 since last year, to 593, Walsh said. The largest growth came in the high school’s first-year class, which has 30 more students than it did last year.

Hermon is Penobscot County’s fastest growing community, according to census data.

“More kids during a pandemic? Probably not the best timing for that,” Walsh said.

About 50 people attended Monday’s meeting, more than previous school committee meetings on the mask requirement. A Penobscot County sheriff’s deputy was on hand to provide security.