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School districts in all of Maine’s 16 counties have the green light to reopen full time for all students, based on new information from the state. But state education officials expect most districts to combine in-person with remote learning when they reopen this fall.
Gov. Janet Mills’ administration on Friday released a color-coded system to tell school districts whether they’re in a county where it’s safe for them to reopen. All of Maine’s 16 counties are currently classified as green — meaning the risk of COVID-19 transmission is low enough to make it safe for schools to open their doors — though the state plans to revisit the classification every two weeks.
The green classification came as the spread of COVID-19 in Maine remains low compared to the rest of the country, according to the Maine Department of Education. Maine has generally seen the numbers of new cases drop in recent weeks, and the state’s positivity rate — the percentage of coronavirus tests that come back positive — has gradually been dropping even as more people receive coronavirus tests.
The color-coded system is based on local coronavirus trends, including case counts and hospitalizations. The other two color classifications, yellow and red, would tell schools respectively that they should pursue a hybrid model that combines online and in-person classes or keep instruction fully online in the fall.
The colored labels are meant to provide an easy-to-understand synthesis of a variety of data on the coronavirus’ spread that school districts can use to inform their reopening plans, said Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
The labels incorporate both numerical and qualitative factors about specific geographic areas. There’s no numerical cutoff that would change a green classification to yellow, Shah said. However, a new coronavirus outbreak at a local child care center or after-school program that many schoolchildren or family members attend could cause the state to adjust a county’s label.
While the state is telling school districts that it’s safe to reopen, reopening decisions remain with the districts, and Education Commissioner Pender Makin said she expected most districts to reopen under a hybrid model.
The Bangor School Department, for example, has announced that it will not bring all students back full time even if Penobscot County maintains its green label.
Superintendent Betsy Webb said the school department plans to run three arrangements simultaneously based on families’ preferences — a full return for students from the 60 percent of families that preferred that option, a hybrid arrangement for students from 27 percent of families, and online instruction for the remaining 13 percent.
The green label for the state will help districts finalize reopening plans, but it’s also important that they be flexible so they can switch gears if the virus surges again, said Gregg Palmer, the school superintendent in Brewer, where the school committee will vote on a reopening plan Monday.
“What this really says is that Maine counties have a low incidence of the virus, so we have reopening plans that can start to take shape in the light of that information.” he said.
The Department of Education said in June that school districts should have three plans in place for the fall semester: a full return to in-person schooling, a combination of in-person and online learning, and a fully online semester.
Even in school districts that reopen their school buildings, school won’t look as it did before the pandemic.
Students and staff members will have to screen themselves for coronavirus-like symptoms before arriving at school and stay home if they have any symptoms. They will have to report their symptoms to the school.
Students and staff will also have to wear face coverings while at school, and students’ desks will have to be placed at least 3 feet apart from others as long as they wear face coverings. During meal times, when students can’t wear masks, they’ll have to stay 6 feet from others. Students and staff are also required to receive training in proper hand hygiene to reduce the risk of infection.
All Maine counties are receiving the green label with the understanding that those safety measures will be in place, Shah said.
“It assumes that students and teachers will be wearing face coverings. It assumes proper social distancing,” he said.
The state is also planning to deliver personal protective equipment such as masks, face shields, cloth face coverings and hand sanitizer to the districts at no charge, potentially with the help of the Maine National Guard, Makin said.