In this Aug. 18, 2021, file photo, a large crowd gathered for a special SAD 70 school board meeting to discuss mandatory face coverings. Credit: Joe Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

HOULTON, Maine — Just three months into the 2021-22 school year, most Aroostook County schools have already exceeded the total number of positive cases of COVID-19 experienced in their districts for all of last year, in one district nearly five times more.

“My thoughts on the data reflect, without question, the veracity of the delta COVID-19 strain and its causation to continued spread throughout our communities,” SAD 70 Superintendent Stephen Fitzpatrick said.

The use of mandatory versus optional face coverings has only slightly decreased the percentage of positive cases.

The dramatic increase in the total number of cases is something school districts throughout the state are seeing. But school officials hope that the measures put in place, including pool testing, will help keep students safe — and in school.

Two school districts — SAD 70 in Hodgdon and RSU 89 in Stacyville (Katahdin) — are the only public schools in northern Maine that have an optional mask policy for students and staff. And while the percentage of positive cases at both of those schools is higher than neighboring districts, it is not noticeably higher as one might expect.

Hodgdon has recorded 37 positive COVID-19 cases in the district, or roughly 7.64 percent of its population, as of Wednesday. Seven of those cases are in staff, with the remaining 30 among the student population. There are 486 students in the two schools in SAD 70, with more than 100 staff.

A total of 260 students or staff (53.72 percent) have been required to be quarantined from school at various times. The district had 12 active cases Friday.

Based on the current trend, Fitzpatrick said that he hopes the numbers will eventually plateau.

“I believe as more people choose to avoid quarantine through pool testing and detection of the virus at an earlier stage, combined with both vaccination and natural building of immunity through contracting this virus, will result in a slowing of this specific strain in community spread,” he said. “My concern would be the potential next variant or strain. This pandemic has taken its toll both in our schools as well as communities, state and nation.”

Katahdin has reported 26 positive cases, or roughly 9.19 percent of its population of 283 students.

In comparison, RSU 29 in Houlton, where there’s a mandatory mask policy, has experienced 90 positive cases — or roughly 6.7 percent of its population of 1,347 students. A total of 743 students or staff (55 percent) have been asked to quarantine at one point this school year.

That total number of cases is almost five times the number for all of the 2020-21 school year.

“I do not have exact numbers for last year, but my best estimate would be 20 cases overall,” said Holly Hodgkin, RSU 29 director of nursing. “We did not see our first case until right before Thanksgiving last year. Our numbers are much higher this year, and we are also seeing community spread.”

The number of students who have been asked to quarantine could have been much higher if the district was not doing mandatory masks and pool testing of students, Hodgkin said. But pool testing is optional, and the number of students participating is low.

“Since the beginning of this school year, we have had 355 students that were able to remain in school due to that exception,” Hodgdkin said. “We have already surpassed our total cases from last year. I spoke with a CDC worker yesterday and she told me that what the RSU 29 district is seeing is common among many schools throughout the state this year.”

In RSU 50 (Southern Aroostook), a total of 20 cases (5.8 percent) have been reported, with 135 students having to be isolated or quarantined at some point in time. There are 343 students in the entire school district.

“We have more positive cases this year than all of last year,” RSU 50 Superintendent and Principal Jon Porter said. “Required masking, our pooled testing program, social distancing measures and our parents’ cooperation with following the COVID-19 daily screener has helped keep our numbers down. We have been very fortunate to continue with in-person instruction.”  

Two of The County’s larger school districts — SAD 1 in Presque Isle and RSU 39 in Caribou — have experienced even higher numbers of COVID-19 cases, despite having mandatory mask policies.

Caribou Superintendent Tim Doak said his district has experienced 90 total COVID-19 cases (7.8 percent of its population). Of that figure, 82 cases were students, and eight were staff members.

Doak said the numbers were “absolutely much worse than last year,” as the district only had 28 total cases for all of 2020-21.

In neighboring SAD 1, the results are not as dramatic. The district has reported 53 positive cases (3.1 percent) so far, which is about the same number for the entire school year in 2020-21, Superintendent Ben Greenlaw said.

“It seems strange to say, but we didn’t even have our first case of COVID in the district during the 2020-2021 school year until Dec. 3,” he said. “My thoughts on the data is that the delta variant of the coronavirus has proven to be highly contagious and has impacted the students, staff and families in our district much more significantly this year as compared to last year.”

He said they are not seeing the virus spread in the schools and that all but a few of their cases are from students and staff bringing COVID-19 in from the greater community.

Greenlaw said he believes this trend is due to the many mitigation strategies that are in place in SAD 1, including indoor mask wearing, pooled testing, social distancing, contact tracing and regular hand washing.

“I can’t project what our case numbers will be in the coming weeks and months, but I am hopeful that with students aged 5-11 now eligible for the COVID vaccination, we will see a reduction of cases in our schools due to a higher percentage of our school population being fully vaccinated,” Greenlaw said.