Students enter Hermon High School in late September. The state is watching Penobscot County's virus numbers for a potential school safety downgrade, under which the state would recommend schools adopt a hybrid model of remote and in-person learning. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Penobscot County schools are ready to switch to partially or completely remote learning if the state says on Friday that it’s no longer safe for the county’s schools to be open full-time.

The Maine Department of Education is closely monitoring Penobscot County this week in preparation for a potential downgrade from a “green” to “yellow” school safety rating. In recent weeks, new daily cases have risen faster in Penobscot County than in every Maine county but Androscoggin. And while Penobscot County’s rate of COVID-19 tests coming back positive — an indicator of how widely the virus is circulating — is still lower than the statewide rate, it’s been growing faster.

Penobscot County schools have been designated green, meaning it’s safe to open school buildings for full-time instruction, since the Department of Education started issuing county safety ratings at the end of summer. A downgrade to yellow would mean the state recommends hybrid learning — in which students attend in person part of the week and learn at home the rest. That’s already the model most Bangor-area school districts are using. But even school districts offering full-time, in-person instruction are prepared to change course quickly.

“We’re very well prepared to switch, whether it’s from green to yellow or yellow to red,” said Kathy-Harris Smedberg, the Bangor School Department’s interim superintendent. “Our teachers and administration have worked really hard to make sure that we have solid protocols in place, and they’ve worked with the children to help them to understand how to access their learning when they do make that move.”

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In Bangor, a number of schools have seen cases of COVID-19 in recent weeks after a relatively smooth start to the semester. Bangor High School and William S. Cohen Middle School were both fully online last week. And on Monday, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported a virus outbreak at Bangor’s Fruit Street School.

Elsewhere in Penobscot County, Brewer High School, Caravel Middle School in Carmel and Nokomis Regional High School in Newport have also dealt with coronavirus outbreaks.

Bangor currently allows students to choose to attend school five days a week, attend two days in person and learn remotely the rest, or stay home full-time and learn online. If the state changes Penobscot’s rating, Bangor will only offer hybrid or fully remote instruction.

“That’s because moving to yellow requires that we go back to the 6-feet distancing, and we wouldn’t have the physical capabilities within the school to maintain all of that,” Harris-Smedberg said. “Under the green [designation] we’re allowed to go down to 3 feet. We try to keep 6 feet, but to have it in every classroom five days a week, we couldn’t do it.”

Full-time, in-person schedules have been more common in northern Penobscot County.

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In East Millinocket, about 90 percent of elementary and high school students attend school five days a week for four hours instead of the usual six-and-a-half, and the other 10 percent learn remotely, according to Superintendent Eric Steeves. (The town’s middle-school students attend school in Medway.)

If the safety rating changes Friday, Steeves plans to recommend to the school board that high school students switch to remote learning starting next week while elementary school students maintain their in-person learning schedules.

All East Millinocket students have been learning remotely since the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, when the school department kept all students home as a precautionary measure. Students are set to return to school Wednesday.

“We have found this week that online instruction for elementary kids is very difficult,” Steeves said. “The teachers are having to do a lot of support activities trying to get the kids to focus. But at the high school, it seems to be going remarkably smoothly.”

In neighboring Millinocket, students attend school four days a week and learn remotely on Fridays. After taking a similar remote learning break for Thanksgiving, schools resumed in-person learning on Monday, Superintendent Frank Boynton said.

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Millinocket will stick with its schedule if the state downgrades Penobscot’s safety rating, but will shut down theater and sports, since a yellow rating means schools can’t offer after-school activities, Boynton said. A scaled-back winter sports season is largely on hold as it is, though school teams were able to start some skill-building and conditioning drills on Monday.

“It’s really hard for me to predict what will happen because the number of cases in town is staying minimal,” Boynton said. “We’ve had a few people be tested, and the majority of the tests have come back negative.”

The last time when the state was preparing to potentially downgrade Penobscot County’s safety rating was at the start of the school year, as the Millinocket area dealt with the fallout from an outbreak stemming from an Aug. 7 Katahdin-region wedding.

A number of East Millinocket school staff tested positive following the wedding, and schools in the area delayed the start of in-person instruction. But since then, the area’s schools haven’t seen case surges, Steeves and Boynton said. The switch to remote learning for Thanksgiving was the first time their schedules were interrupted since the school year’s start.

“The kids have been great. A lot of that has to do with that summer outbreak,” Steeves said. “I think that’s when it hit home that it’s the real deal and can happen to us up here.”

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