COVID-19 throws a wrench in start of new school year

DEER ISLE — It’s only September and already the pandemic is disrupting the Hancock County school year. Deer Isle-Stonington High School is closed all this week and nearly 50 individuals in Regional School Unit 24 (RSU 24) have recently completed or are still in quarantine due to COVID-19 cases and possible exposures.

RSU 25 was scheduled to hold an emergency school board meeting Wednesday, Sept. 15 at 6 p.m. to discuss a COVID-19 outbreak at the Jewett School.

Superintendent Jim Boothby said the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention quantifies three cases as an outbreak.

“We’re no longer required to shut down the entire school,” Boothby said.

The troubles don’t end in the classroom. All three Hancock County high school football games were canceled last week, including Ellsworth/Sumner’s planned home game. The Eagles had too many players in quarantine, according to Ellsworth Athletic Director Josh Frost.

At DISHS, all sporting events were cancelled this week during the school closure. Two events already had been called off due to COVID cases at the opponent schools, according to the school’s weekly newsletter. Students have been using Google Meet to attend classes remotely.

According to a Sept. 8 letter from RSU 24 Superintendent Michael Eastman, an individual associated with Sumner tested positive for COVID-19, resulting in 21 close contacts being instructed to quarantine until Sept. 13.

In a Sept. 9 letter, Eastman reported that a positive case at the Mountain View School led to the quarantine of 27 close contacts until Sept. 20.

The Maine Department of Education’s (DOE) current standard operating procedure for investigating COVID-19 cases at schools requires close contacts of students and staff who test positive for COVID-19 to quarantine for 10 days after the exposure. A close contact is defined as someone who has been within 6 feet of the person affected for more than 15 minutes within a 24-hour period or anyone who has had any direct physical contact.

The procedure states that students and staff do not have to quarantine from the classroom if they are fully vaccinated, have had a previous positive COVID-19 test result within 90 days of the exposure, participate in the school’s pooled testing program or the school has mandated mask-wearing.

At the RSU 24 Board of Directors Aug. 30 meeting, the board upheld its previous decision to not implement a mask mandate policy, adding a provision that directed Eastman to develop a remote learning option for students who do not feel safe attending school when mask-wearing is optional.

At the board’s Sept. 7 meeting, RSU 24 Director of Curriculum Nikki Chan presented that plan to the board, which unanimously approved it.

According to the plan, students will enroll long-term, for either one or two semesters, in EdOptions Academy, remote schooling taught by Maine certified teachers.

Chan explained that the plan was developed in part to avoid hybrid instruction, where teachers instruct students in person and those tuning in remotely. She said the hybrid learning models used during the last school year caused high levels of anxiety for teachers who had to deal with technical problems.

Eastman told The American that students affected by the recent quarantines would be “accessing their learning using Google Classroom.”

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