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MSAD #51 Pandemic Status Update - March 8, 2021

posted Mar 8, 2021, 11:21 AM by Fran Prentice   [ updated Mar 8, 2021, 11:21 AM ]

MSAD #51 Pandemic Status Update


March 8, 2021


Dear MSAD #51 School Community,

Over the last several days, I have been asked by many what the next steps are for our schools given that staff vaccinations have been prioritized both nationally and here in Maine. Right now, many staff members have already begun securing appointments for the first round of the COVID-19 vaccine and staff members who are 60+ years of age have a dedicated clinic open to them this week.  

Please note it is possible that staff absences may result from vaccination appointments.  We are encouraging staff to take the first available appointments, no matter what time it may be.  Our interest is in supporting our staff to get vaccinated as soon as possible in order to help with the later transition to GREEN. As a result, it is possible that a school may need to close to in-person learning for a day if staff absences are heavy due to vaccination appointments.

In order to provide some context as to where MSAD #51 is with respect to the pandemic and the continued status of schools in YELLOW (hybrid model), here are some important considerations and next steps:

Considerations

In our school community, unlike neighboring districts, we are struggling with up to 200% more COVID-19 cases, an alarming figure that should cause all of us to pause.  Our entire district is in 'outbreak' status due to total case counts and the timing of those counts.  This status is relatively rare in Maine, and even more rare that we have chosen to keep the schools open since January 22, when we first were designated by the CDC in this status. Some districts in 'outbreak' status have chosen to stay closed to in-person learning for long periods of time.

The state's physical distancing rules are in place for a reason and until the CDC and Maine Department of Education changes them, we are required to follow them.  Currently, these rules require a minimum of 3-6 feet distance between students in a classroom, which is impossible in our schools at more than 50% capacity at a time.  Our state funding is tied to compliance with state rules and laws; this is not a choice.

We need all of our staff to return full-time in order to have all students back in school 100%.  Currently, many of our staff members are out on medical and child care leaves as allowed by federal law.  As many of our staff live in other neighboring communities, until the entire region or state is in GREEN, our staff who are out on child care leaves cannot commit to being back 100% of the time.

We need most of our staff to be vaccinated to make this work, or else we'll be closing the schools even more than we are now.  It is not the number of students out due to a COVID-19 case/quarantine that closes our schools, it is a lack of available staff due to quarantines that closes them.  In other words, staff being vaccinated helps keep us from being in RED (100% remote). Vaccinations are starting now for our staff, but given appointment schedules and two rounds of the vaccine, it could be several weeks before this would even be completed.

We need to be mindful that staff who are asymptomatic for COVID-19, even after vaccination, can potentially transmit the virus to non-vaccinated students.  When there are classrooms full of students, the ability of staff to distance from students is much less possible.  We will need to be incredibly careful about health protocols in order to minimize this transmission.  This consideration worries me more than any of the others.

Many parents have asked me about renting space in the towns or seeking to be more creative with space. Space is important, and is certainly a factor, but it is not the only issue holding us back from moving toward GREEN. 

I have also been asked why some area districts seem to be transitioning to more in-person learning and we are not. The fact remains that the vast majority of area school districts are not transitioning to more in-person learning at this time. The few that are making this transition now have a different set of space, staffing, and COVID-19 case levels than we do. For these reasons, comparing districts does not paint an accurate picture or explain the realities and limitations within our own school community.

Next Steps

We all want our students to return as soon as possible to a more typical schedule. But this must be done thoughtfully and safely and not in ways that could close our schools for extended periods of time. 

We are still living in a dire health emergency. Our district has avoided political and surface-level approaches such as task forces to manage it, as we take health and safety very seriously and feel that politics has no place in these discussions.  I rely on our district's leadership team and health team, which includes our district physician and school nurses, for sound direction on health and safety protocols.

Nonetheless, I will be bringing forward an amended process for possibly transitioning the schools back this school year toward GREEN, if and when it becomes safe and permissible to do so, to the MSAD #51 Board of Directors at their March 15 meeting.  This will be a process only and will not have a timetable attached to it until the other considerations outlined in this letter can be resolved.

IF we can transition back this school year to more in-person learning, it may not be 5 days/weekly but could be any number of possible scenarios that moves us closer to GREEN that are less than 5 days/weekly.

This transition plan will be aligned with work that has already begun around a Post-Pandemic Plan to guide the 2021-22 school year in GREEN. As I previously sent out in an update last week, this post-pandemic planning will involve three major areas:  Health & Safety, Instruction, and Mental Health/Well-Being.

Thank you for your continued support and patience as we all continue to navigate the pandemic.

Sincerely,

Jeffrey Porter
Superintendent of Schools