Andy Hurtt’s four sons are more excited than usual for the first day of school because they’re finally expecting school to feel more like it did before the pandemic, without the masking other COVID-19 protocols that came to define school over the past two years.
Hurtt, who lives in Brewer, said he and his children continued to wear masks for a little while after schools dropped the requirement, but eventually stopped. Now, they’ll wear them indoors when asked, but not most of the time.
“We weren’t worried about it in smaller learning groups, but if they did larger group things, we’d send them to school in masks,” Hurtt said Wednesday as his kids played at Bangor’s Fairmount Park. “Nobody likes wearing masks, but they never complained.”
Last year at this time, school boards were in the midst of sometimes contentious debates over whether to require masks. Those same battles aren’t happening this year, and doctors and health officials aren’t expecting schools to impose mask requirements. Instead, health professionals are now focused more on ensuring that children get vaccinated against COVID-19 and that parents keep their children home from school when they’re sick.
Parents recognize that COVID-19 is still present, but even the most cautious families are relaxing their precautions as their children prepare for a more normal first day of school.
Hurtt said all four of his sons are vaccinated against COVID-19, but they were allowed to choose whether to receive the vaccine.
“We wanted to give them bodily autonomy, but we also encouraged them to get it and make good choices to protect other people,” Hurtt said. “They have grandparents and others that are in the high-risk demographic, so they understood that vaccines help them stay healthy and not spread it to them. It made simple, logical sense to them.”
Dr. James Jarvis, lead physician for Northern Light Health’s COVID-19 response, said he’s surprised by the relatively low percentage of Maine children who have received the COVID-19 vaccine compared with other age groups in the state.
“I would’ve expected to see more by now, especially because in every other age category, we’ve been a leader in the nation in terms of our vaccination rate,” Jarvis said.
Statewide, about 50 percent of Mainers 19 and younger had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as of Friday. Meanwhile, roughly 80 percent of Mainers 20 and older had received at least one dose, according to state data.
Only about 31 percent of Maine children 11 and younger had received the first dose.
Jarvis and Dr. Peter Millard, a physician at the Seaport Community Health Center in Belfast and former epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said more Maine children getting vaccinated could help keep cases down as the school year progresses, but they agreed COVID-19 will be present in the community throughout the school year and into the foreseeable future.
“I don’t think we’re going to see a catastrophic outbreak from any particular coronavirus. It’s going to be there all the time but in relatively low levels,” Millard said. “People are less anxious and more willing to accept what’s going on. There was a lot of hysteria before and that has, fortunately, gone away.”
Sarah Cottrell of Winterport adopted extreme precautions when COVID-19 reached Maine to protect her oldest son, who has hemophilia. She began homeschooling her three children and became meticulous about cleaning everything brought into her home.
“I remember being panic-stricken that I didn’t clean everything properly and we would unknowingly bring this virus into our house and it would kill my son,” she said. “I remember being freezing cold on my porch and crying because I didn’t know what to do with a head of broccoli. That level of urgency doesn’t exist now. It’s just abject exhaustion.”
Her family managed to avoid contracting COVID-19 until the day her youngest child received her second vaccine dose in June. That day, they all tested positive.
Unexpectedly, her son with hemophilia and husband never displayed symptoms. Her other two children had mild, manageable symptoms, and Cottrell became very sick.
Cottrell and her family have now relaxed their COVID-19 precautions, and her children are returning to public school, though they will wear masks.
“I’m not feeling anxious for the fall,” Cottrell said. “I’m really excited for my kids to go back to school. I just want my kids to have a relatively normal school year. I want to be worried about them making friends and learning, not having to deal with what has gone on over the past two years.”
While cases in Maine have remained relatively low throughout the summer, Jarvis said he’s concerned about a new variant of the disease, BA.5, which is the dominant strain in the U.S. and more transmissible than previous strains.
“If Maine is trailing the rest of the nation and in the rest of the nation cases are going up, we can anticipate we’ll probably see increases in cases as well,” Jarvis said. “The good news is that we’re still relatively low and we haven’t seen a summer spike like other places have, but that may be an eventuality for us.”
It’s difficult to predict exactly when and to what extent cases could rise when students return to school, but Millard and Jarvis said COVID is endemic and they understand people are tired of following mitigation practices such as masking and social distancing.
“After a while, everybody gets COVID fatigue and everybody starts to migrate back to a normal life,” Millard said. “It’s a natural thing to do and I think it’s OK, recognizing there’s a certain amount of risk with everything we do.”