AUGUSTA, Maine — On Wednesday, the Mills administration said physical distancing requirements in schools will be relaxed in time for the start of the school year in the fall, and as a result said all schools should offer full-time, in-person learning.
"With the progress we've made in vaccinating Maine people, we want to make sure that there are no barriers to getting our kids back into the classroom full-time," Gov. Janet Mills said in a release.
The Maine Department of Education's (DOE) planning guidance for this summer and fall details public health requirements for public settings, including schools. The guidance cites Maine's "significant progress to date in vaccinating its population and reducing the spread of COVID-19," and says the physical distancing requirements for PreK-12 schools and adult education programs will be lifted for the start of the 2021 school year.
Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said other safety protocols—like wearing masks indoors—will continue to be needed in schools, though, "to protect students, school staff, and teachers from COVID-19 which continues to pose a public health threat."
Lambrew said some schools in the state have been challenged by distancing requirements such as keeping desks three feet apart or students six feet apart when eating in the cafeteria.
The Maine DOE is also encouraging schools to participate in the pooled COVID-19 testing program, which is offered to all schools free of charge. Maine DOE says the program is meant to help protect students who aren't eligible yet to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and to help minimize disruptions from students or staff who may be quarantined after being identified as close contacts.
"While we still have students who will return to school this summer or in the fall who are not yet eligible for vaccination, the lessons learned from this school year, along with additional safety options such as pooled testing, will ensure a healthy and joyful return to the classrooms," Maine DOE Commissioner Pender Makin said in a release.
In light of the relaxed guidelines, the Mills administration said it expects all schools to offer full-time, in-person learning this fall.
However, schools are "encouraged to continue the development and expansion of responsive, innovative pathways to learning for students who may benefit, but these options should be provided alongside full-time, in-person learning," Maine DOE said.
Distancing requirements for summer education programs will be lifted as well, but other health and safety protocols will remain in effect.
Lambrew and Maine Centers for Disease Control & Prevention Director Dr. Nirav Shah discussed the update in Wednesday's coronavirus briefing.