BELFAST, Maine — Nathaniel Baer’s daughter is in the fifth grade at Captain Albert W. Stevens School in Belfast, where she loves going to class and seeing her friends.
So it came as a blow when the Maine Department of Education changed Waldo County’s school safety rating to “yellow” on Friday, signaling that it’s not safe for schools in the county of fewer than 40,000 residents to open in person full time.
Waldo is currently the only county the state has designated “yellow,” meaning it’s only safe for schools there to use a hybrid model in which students learn in person only part of the week.
The downgrade stems from the outbreak connected to the Brooks Pentecostal Church. As of Friday, at least 57 cases had been linked to the church outbreak.
For Baer’s daughter, it means that instead of going to school every day, his daughter will now go just a couple of days a week, and he and his wife will have to juggle their full-time jobs to make sure she’s not alone too long.
“It’s frustrating, after the kids and the teachers and the staff have been doing such a great job,” Baer, the owner of Downshift Coffee in downtown Belfast, said Saturday afternoon. “She certainly would be there every day, if she could.”
The outbreak may have started with a weekend fellowship gathering in one small town, but it has had a ripple effect throughout the county. Residents reacted with anger, frustration and sadness this weekend when describing the changes facing local students and others because of it.
“This is going to mess up tons of people’s lives,” Belfast Mayor Eric Sanders said. “The kids act more adult than the adults in Waldo County.”
Caitlin Hills, the chair of the Regional School Unit 71 school board, said that the schools and administrators have been working around the clock to make the difficult situation easier. She also lauded Superintendent Mary Alice McLean’s transparent communication with the community and the district-wide adherence to safety protocols.
“It’s distressing that a group of people have turned our county yellow,” she said. “We will continue to provide education, food and support for all of our students and families.”
All schools in Waldo County have canceled high school sports for the rest of the fall season after the safety designation was downgraded, and Belfast Area High School’s fall musical only had one public, outdoor performance before getting postponed. On Friday, McLean said that the show will go on next weekend, but only for the cast’s family members.
Jennifer Lisa, whose ninth-grade daughter, Annabelle Lisa, is in the musical, said that it’s too bad.
“These kids worked really hard, maintaining a 6-foot distance and having all the rehearsals outside,” she said. “It felt like getting back to normal.”
For Annabelle Lisa, the changes related to the outbreak have been a disappointment, but not much of a surprise.
“I feel like we knew it was coming,” the 14-year-old said.
What the Lisa family didn’t expect, however, was how close their own brush with the coronavirus would be. Jennifer Lisa’s elderly mother got her hair done shortly before her hairstylist found out one of her family members had the disease.
“It’s kind of nerve-wracking. My dad just had a stroke. We’re all walking around wondering, ‘are we carrying this?’” she said. “The ripple effect part, it’s like a domino. I never thought in a million years that we would have been personally so close to it.”
Jennifer Lisa said that the fact that the outbreak has happened in Waldo County makes the continued fighting over mask-wearing on some local Facebook pages hard to take.
“Really, for me, at the end of the day, it’s about being a good citizen,” she said. “People just need to think beyond themselves.”
For Bridget Matros, the youth and families outreach coordinator at Waterfall Arts in Belfast, the outbreak just made her plan to hold a Great Pumpkin Pageant at the Belfast waterfront on Saturday morning all the more important.
She knew that the pandemic was already likely to change the way local kids celebrate Halloween. City officials are hoping that the huge crowds that normally trick-or-treat on Cedar Street will stay away, so having a place where kids could come and show off their costumes — in a socially distanced way — seemed critical.
“You do not mess with Halloween,” Matros said. “My peeps have been planning their costumes for months.”
The event, which drew about 75 children, was a success, she said.
“It was everything I wanted. When I stood over here and told kids the lay of the land, it was a riot to see how excited they were,” she said, adding that the smiles and excitement were infectious. “Mental health is a part of being healthy, too.”