Caribou Community School Credit: Hannah Catlin / Aroostook Republican

CARIBOU, Maine — Caribou’s K-8 school will go remote starting Thursday until at least Sept. 24 following exposures and spread of COVID-19 during after-school sports and other extracurricular activities.

In a school of 722, almost a third of the students were absent on Wednesday.

There were nine active COVID-19 cases among the Caribou Community School student body, with 166 children and roughly eight teachers in quarantine as close contacts, RSU 39 superintendent Tim Doak said Wednesday afternoon. An additional 58 kids were absent from school — some for regularly scheduled appointments and others who called out sick.

RSU 39 moved to implement masks in its schools before the Caribou Community School students returned to classes, but most cases and exposures are originating after school during sports — when kids are not required to wear masks — and other activities, Doak said. The district will not mandate masks for its outdoor fall sports yet, but Doak said it was likely that come winter, indoor sports would require face coverings and limit spectators again.

Across the state, COVID-19 spread among athletes — particularly those who are unvaccinated — has thrown a wrench in fall sports leagues across the state, and created a scheduling nightmare as athletic directors try to work around unpredictable cancellations and postponements.

“I put all my trust in the Maine Principals Association for their guidance and their professionalism … [but] I think it would be impossible for us to have any indoor sports without masks on,” Doak said. “The hardest thing about COVID is we’re limiting the experiences every kid should have in school.”

Roughly 40 kids in the Caribou youth soccer league were exposed to the virus, and over the weekend, between 20 and 30 middle school soccer players competed against a visiting team with a COVID-positive player, Doak said.

At Caribou High School, a COVID-19 outbreak at the beginning of the year while masks were still optional forced the girls varsity soccer team to miss the first game of its season, and the boys team to miss its first two.  

So far, Caribou Community School has not identified viral spread within the building, and Doak speculated that the other cases and exposures were likely emerging after school as well.

“We try to do the best we can to keep kids safe, but when they leave us at 3 o’clock, we don’t have control over what they do,” Doak said. “They’re going to want to live the way they’ve always lived and I don’t blame them for that but that’s how the spread happens.”

Doak said that with so many exposures, he felt going remote was the only way to be sure the school didn’t become a venue for community transmission.

Caribou Community School’s shift to remote learning comes amid a record-breaking surge in cases in Aroostook County, which has been exacerbated by the back-to-school season.

As of Wednesday, Caribou High School had six active cases and 54 students in quarantine, but was planning to continue in-person instruction.

Down the road, Central Aroostook High School in Mars Hill announced that it would go remote on Thursday for the first time this year. Earlier this week, the entire Houlton School District, RSU 29, began a two week remote learning period due to outbreaks in all of its schools.

“It’s almost an endless cycle of not-good news,” Doak said.

Hannah Catlin

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