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All 16 Maine counties get initial go-ahead for in-person instruction in schools

The department said prior to releasing its classifications that each county would be classified as either green, yellow, or red zones, based on the risk of COVID-19.

MAINE, USA — The Maine Department of Education updated its Framework for Returning to Class Instruction on Friday, and classified all 16 Maine counties as having a relatively low risk of COVID-19 spread.

The department said prior to releasing its classifications that each county would be classified as either green, yellow, or red zones, based on the risk of COVID-19 spread.

All counties were classified as green. 

The classifications were made by Maine's Health Advisory System, which is a collaboration among the Maine DOE, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (Maine CDC). 

Here's how the classifications work:

  • Green: relatively low risk of COVID-19 spread. Schools can consider in-person instruction with required health and safety measures.
  • Yellow: elevated risk of COVID-19 spread. Schools should consider hybrid instructional models to try to limit the number of people in classrooms at the same time.
  • Red: high risk of COVID-19 spread. In-person instruction is not advised.

Parents have mixed feelings on the potential that their children could be going back to school.

"I'm excited to see what's going to happen with the next school year," Tina Renaud of Farmington said. "I think it was the right decision to go ahead and see what happens."

Renaud said she feels safe sending her kids to school in Farmington, her only concern is her 4-year-old daughter might not want to wear a mask all day. She said she's trying to normalize mask wearing and is going to let her daughter pick out her own so she's more excited to wear it.

Tammy Brackley of Freman Township has four teenagers. Three of them go to school in Somerset County and one goes to school in Franklin County.

She's afraid because she lives in a multi-generational home with her parents and kids. Her parents are at risk because of their age.

"Honestly it's kind of scary," she said. "There's a lot of transferring classes in the high school level that isn't something that the younger grades have to deal with."

She added that teenagers are still teenagers, even in the age of COVID-19 and will likely do exactly what they are told not to do.

The Maine DOE noted that the circumstances could change between now and the official start of the school year, and said it will be updated every two weeks, serving as one piece of information that school and district leaders can use to make decisions about how to deliver education this fall.

"The green here is not like the green light at a dragstrip. It does not mean you push your feet on the accelerator and go as fast as possible," Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said Friday. "The green light here is really more like the green light at like, a carwash. You enter slowly, you look around you with caution, and you be prepared to stop at anytime. That's really the way in which these designations are offered. They're cautionary, so that school administrators have all the information from an epidemiological perspective as they're making their decisions on the ground."

In a press release Friday, the Maine Department of Education said in part:

The initial assessment released today showed that 16 Maine counties are currently categorized as “green,” suggesting a relatively low COVID-19 risk at this time and that in-person instruction can be adopted as long as schools can implement the six Requirements for Safely Opening Schools in the Fall. While COVID-19 remains more prevalent in Cumberland, York, Androscoggin, and Sagadahoc counties than in other Maine counties, the assessment pertains to the unique circumstances of schools and currently indicates relatively limited risk statewide. All counties, like the state as a whole, have COVID-19 prevalence below that of virtually all other states.

“Today, we are providing additional guidance to school districts as they decide how to proceed with the school year,” said Maine DOE Commissioner Pender Makin. “While I’m grateful to know that our state continues to be relatively safe due to the vigilance of Maine people, this risk evaluation is intended to be, and should be, just one of several variables that local school districts take into consideration as they make decisions that are best for their communities. We anticipate that in many cases schools in low risk areas will open this fall using a hybrid learning model in order to best protect the healthy and safety of their students and provide them with the most effective education possible. It is our goal to support them through this challenging time.”

RELATED: Tips to normalize masks for your child before a potential return to classrooms

If a school decides to return to in-person learning, there will still be a lot of changes. The Maine DOE has listed six requirements, including:

  • Symptom screening for all staff and students before they come to school
  • Physical distancing
  • Use of masks or face coverings by staff and students
  • Proper hand hygiene, implemented with training
  • Use of personal protective equipment for the school nurse or staff members who are working closely with students
  • Isolation at home for staff and students, if they get sick

The Department of Education said a school administrative unit may opt for hybrid instruction if its buildings or readiness make adhering to these requirements a challenge.

Ken Kunin, the Superintendent of South Portland schools, says he will recommend to the school board on Wednesday that the district start the school year with a hybrid model, despite the Maine DOE identifying Cumberland County as "green."

"Given the considerable planning and preparation that we have been doing and will continue to do, we feel that this is the safest and most prudent next step in a return to the “in-person” education that we all so desire," Kunin wrote in a letter to staff and families on Friday.

A hybrid plan, which falls into the yellow classification, is a blend of distance and in-person learning, with about 50% of students receiving in-person instruction at a time to allow for following required health and safety protocols.

Read more about the South Portland pandemic response plan here

As of Monday, August 3, Portland Superintendent Xavier Botana is recommending that the Portland Public Schools adopt a yellow hybrid scenario for students to safely return to school this fall.

That hybrid plan would limit the time and stagger the number of students who can attend school in person, depending on grade level. 

View details of the recommended scenario for the various grade levels in the document below:

A remote learning option with consistent schedules and learning experiences also will be available for families who opt not to attend in-person school.

Botana envisions these plans staying in place through the end of the first trimester and would be reconsidered then, or if the state’s color-coded advisory designation requires a move to remote learning.

Botana is also recommending that the first day of school for students be postponed by about two weeks – from Aug. 31 to Sept. 14 – to allow teachers and other staff to prepare for all the safety precautions that must be in place before students enter buildings. 

RELATED: Bangor leaders discuss school reopening plans for this fall

Maine DOE commissioner Pender Makin says she understands why parents may be anxious about sending their kids back if they are able to but is hoping they will trust the judgement of experts in our state.

"What I would tell parents is this -- at the Department of Education, and I think I can vouch/speak for the superintendents and the school leaders and the educators in our schools, we want to open back up," Makin told NEWS CENTER Maine via Zoom on July 17. "We want to open up in person for all children, but we want to do so only when it’s safe."