Maine schools are doing everything in their power to avoid a return to remote learning as classes resume following the holiday break and the highly contagious omicron variant of COVID-19 takes hold.
Schools may be helped in that effort by new guidelines that reduce the amount of time infected students and teachers have to isolate and make it less likely that students will have to stay out of school if they’re exposed to the virus.
The new guidelines issued last week by the Maine Department of Education aim to align schools’ COVID-19 protocols with new protocols from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that shortened the recommended isolation period for those who test positive for COVID-19 to five from 10 days.
The most significant change for schools may be that students who test positive will need to isolate for five days instead of 10, and they will be required to wear a mask for the next five. Most Maine schools have mask requirements for students and staff. The state has also loosened quarantine rules for unvaccinated students and staff who come into contact with someone infected by COVID-19 while outside of school.
While scientists and health experts are divided over the CDC’s new recommendations, Bangor-area school officials are moderately optimistic that the new guidelines will keep students learning in person and prevent disruptions from omicron.
The guidelines will likely keep students in the classroom, said Mike Hammer, superintendent of Newport-based RSU 19. There are no plans for his district to switch to remote learning, he said, especially because case numbers in the district over the recent winter vacation appear to be low.
Amid the surge in new cases, the Bangor School Department is prepared to move to remote learning if it has to, said Ray Phinney, a spokesperson for the Bangor School Department. However, it is first going to see how the new state policies work.
The changes appear to give districts a few more tools to keep students in the classroom as well as more flexibility generally, Brewer Superintendent Gregg Palmer said. There are no plans for the city’s schools to switch to remote learning, he said.
There are no plans to do that in Hampden-based RSU 22, either, Superintendent Regan Nickels said.
The new guidelines take effect as the pace of childhood vaccinations in the state has slowed, with fewer 5- to 11-year-olds having been vaccinated last month than in November, the first full month when the age group could be inoculated.
Around 45 percent of school-age Mainers — those ages 5-19 — were unvaccinated as of Monday. That number is especially high among the 5- to 11-year-olds who became eligible for the Pfizer shots on Oct. 29, with 62 percent in that age group unvaccinated.
In Hermon, which saw its community fiercely divided over a mask requirement earlier in the year, Superintendent Jim Chasse said he is optimistic about the new requirements.
While he has little doubt that the more contagious variant would have an effect on schools, Chasse said it was heartening to hear about the omicron variant’s apparently milder effects.
Chasse said he looks forward to a time when the restrictions put in place now are not required.
“We have an eye on the spring with high hopes of no masks or mask choice,” he said.