University of Maine at Fort Kent
University of Maine at Fort Kent Credit: Don Eno / St. John Valley Times

Two schools in Fort Kent, including University of Maine, have COVID-19 outbreaks and Van Buren has moved to remote learning because of staff members infected or in quarantine.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has designated Fort Kent Elementary School to be in outbreak status with 41 confirmed cases of the virus among staff and students as of Dec. 1. University of Maine at Fort Kent, also with 41 cases recently reported, has seen its highest total of COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic.

A number of Maine schools have struggled with outbreaks and depletion of staff and students from quarantining since the beginning of the school year. The Maine Department of Education listed 200 schools as having outbreaks as of Nov. 24, the most recent update to the list. It will be updated again on Thursday.

An outbreak is defined as three or more confirmed epidemiologically linked cases among different households within a 14-day period.

Fort Kent Elementary School will be on the updated list Thursday. Superintendent Ben Sirois said administrators will meet with Maine CDC medical professionals either Wednesday afternoon or Thursday to determine what actions to take.

Van Buren District School, which serves 265 Pre-K-12 students from Van Buren, Hamlin and Cyr Plantation, went into remote learning the week before Thanksgiving and will remain that way through Friday when administrators will determine whether to return to in-person instruction.

VVan Buren District School. Credit: Hannah Catlin / St. John Valley Times

“Our biggest reason for going remote was that we had a lot of staff members that either had to quarantine and a couple of them had COVID themselves,” Van Buren Superintendent Elaine Boulier said.

Two staff members were bus drivers and there were other essential workers who could not be replaced, so the school went remote, Boulier said.

 “We do have a lot of community [COVID-19] activity as well that certainly doesn’t help matters,” she said.

All 12 cases of COVID-19  among staff and students reported on the SAD 24 website as of Nov. 23 were contracted through community contact outside of the school.

“The staff has been really invaluable in terms of being flexible and really concerned about continuity of instruction for their students,” Boulier said.

The district is delivering meals to the students’ homes during the remote learning period.

The CDC Standard Operating Procedure document regarding schools and COVID-19 indicates that schools will not necessarily be closed based on outbreak status, and it is decided case by case.

And unlike Van Buren, Fort Kent has enough staff members available to continue with in-school instruction.

“We continue to monitor the situation day to day,” Sirois said.

A Nov. 30 University of Maine System briefing reported that 41 of 80 known cases within the system’s eight campuses were among UMFK students and staff.

As of Wednesday, no new cases had been reported, UMFK spokesperson Kerri Blaisdell Watson said.

“While those are the most cases associated with UMFK to date, some of those cases are remote learners. We are no longer at that number — it is dropping quickly,” she said. “We worked quickly to identify, trace and isolate the necessary individuals.”

Blaisdell Watson added that nearly all those students who had tested positive were expected to be released from quarantine by the weekend.