COVID-19 sweeps through SAD 17

COVID-19 has besieged Agnes Gray Elementary School in western Paris, with rising quarantines and relentless positive cases of the virus. Nicole Carter / Democrat for Advertisers

PARIS — During the 2020-2021 school year, Agnes Gray Elementary School in western Paris was largely COVID-free. Few students or staff spent time in quarantine. The school was closed for only one day due to the virus – and that was more of a precaution than an incident that endangered the safety of the students.

Well, that’s not the case. Students have been in quarantine. At least two positive cases have been reported daily, dating back to early October, in the online COVID-19 tracking report from School Administrative District 17. On Monday, 69 students — more than half of the school population — were in quarantine. There were five confirmed and one probable positive case.

“As of Friday afternoon, fourth grade, sixth grade and first grade, the before/after school care program (Explorers) and bus transportation contacts tracing resulted in 69 students identified as close contacts requiring quarantine,” said SAD 17 Superintendent Monica Henson in an email statement on Sunday night about the situation at Agnes Gray. She wrote that the fourth-graders would return to school on Monday, but as of midday that day, the quarantine report still showed 69 students in isolation.

Pooled testing at Agnes Gray began on November 17. At that time, seven students were enrolled in the program. At the end of last week, five more students were added. Henson said the school had no positive results through pooled testing, but many of the students were already in quarantine.

Henson wrote that one class had two positive students within a few days of each other, an indicator of school transference. SAD 17 Western Maine Health medical director Kate Herlihy, along with the Maine state epidemiologist, monitors transmission rates.

If school transfer rates exceed those of school-wide distribution, with particular emphasis on those who are in outbreak status, that will determine whether personal learning goes distance. She said hospital admissions and staffing capacity are other important factors involved in any decision.

“I will not order a shift to remote control unless I am notified by Dr. Herlihy and the Maine CDC that it is necessary,” Henson said. “There is no magic number for staffing demand – it varies from building to building, staff availability on any given day and availability of substitute teachers.”

SAD 17 has few available substitute teachers to cover teachers and has a staff shortage in every department.

“We’ve had a shortage of custodians all year, and that’s a concern,” Henson said. “It affects our ability to provide gym space at night, especially in our remote small primary schools. One of my biggest concerns has been our school nurse team. They have extraordinarily long days.”

To ease the pressure on the district’s health department, SAD 17’s board of directors has authorized the hiring of four temporary nurse secretaries to conduct pooled tests, contact tracing and other administrative duties.

The district’s larger schools are still experiencing high quarantine rates and positive cases of the virus. Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School, Oxford Hills Middle School, Guy E. Rowe School and Paris Elementary School accounted for 190 student/staff quarantines and 41 positive cases.

The other four, smaller Waterford Elementary, Otisfield Community School, Hebron Station School and Harrison Elementary, together had 18 quarantined and two positive cases of the virus.

Henson provided the guidelines school principals have shared with district teachers as schools experience virus spikes:

“Teachers are strongly encouraged to provide live synchronous learning opportunities at their discretion in a way that does not penalize students who are unable to live log in and participate in synchronization. Examples include, but are not limited to, a morning meeting, a story time in class with the teacher on camera reading a book to the children (which can be recorded and viewed on request), a small group session on improving a skill , or a lecture of a maximum of ten minutes. Teachers should also provide links to readily available content relevant to teaching standards, such as the Maine Department of Education Continuity or Learning resource bank. Pre-recorded content can be downloaded to flash drives and sent along with school meals to students without hotspots or proper internet access, much like traditional paper packets of schoolwork.

“Special education staff will be given the freedom to schedule live online sessions, recorded lessons that can be downloaded onto flash drives and delivered to school lunches, and whatever it takes to minimize disruption to services.

“As always, if a teacher would like help setting up a YouTube channel, learning more about recording themselves, managing an online discussion board, and other online instructional techniques, I’m happy to help . They can contact me directly and I schedule time with them for Zoom. If they get me involved, I’ll record the sessions so anyone can play them back if they can’t attend live.

“Students can be encouraged to create and submit their own video homework, such as preschoolers counting to 100, singing the ABCs, or older students telling demonstrations or arguing a persuasive topic. This can be a powerful instructional strategy and, by the way, is not limited to just distance learning.”

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