Gregg Palmer, superintendent of schools in Brewer, said the amount of work involved with responding to COVID-19 cases as a surge in cases punctuates the start of the school year had "snuck up on folks to some extent." Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

A surge in COVID-19 cases in the opening days of school has left school officials charged with contacting classmates potentially exposed to the virus, deciding whether students need to quarantine and determining if the virus is circulating widely enough that classes need to go remote.

The responsibilities have mounted as the coronavirus and its delta variant circulate more actively than a year ago, more students are in school buildings and state guidelines allow many students and staff who have been exposed to the virus to forgo quarantines.

“I think this snuck up on folks to some extent,” Gregg Palmer, superintendent of schools in Brewer, who said the Maine Department of Education and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention have been helping local schools navigate the situation. “I just think the sheer volume and nature of the variant has put a strain on everyone.”

The return to full-time, in-person learning from hybrid arrangements that were in place in much of the state has meant that more students are in the building at any given time, increasing the number of people potentially exposed to a virus case.

Eight COVID cases had been detected at Brewer High School as of Thursday, and the Maine CDC had classified the situation as an outbreak because the school had seen at least three cases from different households within 14 days.

Brewer schools conduct their own contact tracing, meaning that school officials reach out to potentially exposed students and advise them to quarantine if necessary. For that task, school nurses and administrators have to navigate an intricate set of state guidelines that tell them when students and staff can forgo a quarantine. Universal masking, vaccinations and weekly virus testing can allow many students and staff to avoid quarantining.

The Brewer school officials also try to determine if the virus is spreading among people while they’re at school, or if the cases are the result of infections that students or employees picked up outside of school.

“That’s been rare, but I imagine it will happen more often with the Delta variant and all students back in school,” Palmer said of the virus spreading within school walls.

With Brewer High’s latest set of cases, it appeared that the virus had spread between two people while they were at school, “though there’s no way to be sure,” Palmer wrote to parents.

On Thursday, Hermon’s middle and high schools became the first in the Bangor area to temporarily move to remote learning after the two schools saw more than 30 COVID cases in two days.  

Deciding whether to switch to remote classes isn’t often clear cut, Hermon Superintendent Jim Chasse said. While he and his staff have learned a lot about public health during the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re still not experts, he said.

“It would be much easier if it was an ‘if/then’ statement,” Chasse said. “If you’re at this percent of your population and if this metric exists, then you should do exactly this.”

The Maine Department of Education last November activated a team of 21 contact tracers — who notify people who have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive — to help stem the spread of COVID-19 within schools.

That team, mostly retired school nurses, now has eight fewer people, department spokesperson Kelli Deveaux said.  The team’s 12 tracers and one data analyst are in charge of receiving school close contact lists, enrolling families in COVID alert systems, and advising them on quarantining and getting tested, she said.

“Having your family affected by quarantine can be stressful,” Deveaux said, and the team “does a lot of listening.”

At the local level, designated school staff such as nurses and administrators are in charge of first determining who is a close contact of someone who has tested positive and sharing that list with the state, Deveaux said.

“It is easy to understand why schools are feeling overwhelmed by the current state of identifying close contacts, but the supports [from the state] have not changed,” she said.

Maine has 50 contact tracers statewide to handle a variety of duties, including school-related tracing, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention spokesperson Robert Long said.

An additional Department of Education team of 11 nurses is on hand to help schools with their responses to COVID-19 cases, pooled virus testing, establishing and adhering to COVID-19 protocols, and identifying close contacts of people who have tested positive, Deveaux said.

Bangor schools have a team of five nurses who are in charge of handling COVID cases and conducting contact tracing, said Ray Phinney, the school department’s communications director.

Administrators such as principals and school counselors also assist in outbreak investigations, Phinney said. Bangor schools have reported a handful of cases since the start of school, but hadn’t seen any outbreaks as of late last week.

Regional School Unit 22 health staff also conduct their own investigations and contact tracing, health and wellness coordinator Brittany Layman said. RSU 22 serves Hampden, Winterport, Frankfort and Newburgh.

RSU 22 staff only call people who have been directly exposed in school buildings, Layman said.

Lia Russell

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk for the Bangor Daily News. Send tips to LRussell@bangordailynews.com.