Maine Center for Disease Control categorized Boothbay Region High School as having an outbreak Jan. 12. Alternative Organizational Structure (AOS) 98 Superintendent Robert Kahler made the announcement in a letter to the public Jan. 13 and notified Community School District committee members about the situation Jan. 12. He said COVID-19, other illnesses and excessive absences have contributed to the status.
The CDC opens outbreak investigations once a school has reported 15% or more absences in a single day, said Kahler. With a student population of 169, BRHS had 44 absent Jan. 10, 38 Jan. 11, and 41 Jan. 12 – 26%, 22% and 24% respectively. As of Jan. 12, BRHS had 12 students or 7.7% and 5.4% of staff test positive for COVID-19. Boothbay Region Elementary School had 18 students or 5.6% and 6.6% of staff test positive. Since the Jan. 3 return from winter break, 52.4% of absences were COVID-19-related which consists of anyone testing positive for the virus and those awaiting test results.
“In order to be removed from outbreak status, BRHS will need to have two weeks of less than 15% absences due to illness and less than 50% of those absences to be classified as COVID related by the Maine CDC,” said Kahler in his Jan. 13 letter to the public.
Kahler told the committee Jan. 12, and announced in his letter, the schools will continue operating in-person. The CSD’s outbreak investigator said AOS 98 appears to be practicing all the recommended mitigation steps to prevent further spread of the virus, Kahler said. In a letter to teachers’ union Boothbay Region Education Association, Kahler said there are three main reasons for keeping the schools open: Schools have been statistically one of the safest places for students during the pandemic, school is becoming an important tool combating Maine’s mental health crisis, and remote learning has been challenging for many and impossible for some students and has proven hard to monitor.
BRHS teacher and BREA union representative Ben Powell told the committee, BREA would still prefer moving BRHS to fully remote learning for the duration of the school’s outbreak status. Students are not receiving the services they need as staff is being stretched thin to cover for absences; absences appear to be at their worst for both students and staff since the start of the pandemic; going remote would free up substitute teachers and other vital resources, he said.
“I’ve had classes this week in which over half of my students were absent. I actually had a class today with only one student in it. Other teachers have reached out to me with similar stories. We’re having to redo lesson plans, check in with students who are out, attempt to teach remotely and in person, all while trying to cover other classes for (teacher) absences. Even students are asking us, ‘What is going on,’ ‘What’s the plan?’ and if it makes sense for everyone to still come in with so many absent and sick kids. I’ll echo that question tonight: ‘Does that make sense right now?’”
Powell echoed those sentiments in a Jan. 17 response to an email from the Boothbay Register. With consistent daily absences of over 20% of students exhibiting COVID-19-like symptoms, and with a handful of students and staff having already become very sick with the virus, he questions whether appearing in-person at school is truly safe.
“We realize having BRES go remote would be very difficult for both parents and students. However, high school students are capable of learning remotely. It's not ideal, but for a short period of time, it is a very viable solution that would also free up more resources (subs) to be available at BRES, while also hopefully slowing the spread of the virus.”
Powell said BREA was disappointed at a lack of conversation during the Jan. 12 meeting about the BRHS outbreak and how school nurse Kate Schwehm, at the meeting for updates on pooled testing, was not asked her opinion on remote versus in-person learning.
“At one point a board member said I was painting a very different picture than what the pooled test results showed, which were all negative at the high school. However, what wasn't mentioned was the fact that only about 20% of our students are enrolled in pooled testing. Since that meeting, we have had additional cases at the high school.”
The Boothbay Register has reached out to Kahler and the AOS 98 central office for a comment or update.
Said Powell, “While remote learning is challenging, I don't think it would be impossible for anyone at the high school. We can provide USB dongles that allow students who may not have WiFi at home to access the internet. There are also things we can do to improve engagement and attendance. We aren't talking about going remote for the rest of the year, just hopefully until we get out of an outbreak.”