by Sarah Craighead Dedmon
With a 72 percent increase in COVID-19 cases across Washington County this month, most in the last 10 days, Machias area schools are watching for an update to the Maine Department of Education’s (DOE) color-coded Health Advisory System, which could come as soon as Friday.
Using data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, DOE codes each county green, yellow or red, and school districts — which retain local control — then decide how they will proceed.
Washington County is currently coded green, meaning all schools are able to offer in-person instruction, with significant precautionary measures in place such as universal masking, desk spacing, plexiglass screens, and small cohorts of students in every learning space.
Should Washington County’s designation become yellow, A.O.S. 96 Superintendent Scott Porter says he will first confer with district school committees and leadership, and then make his decision, which would likely move the district to “hybrid” instruction, as recommended by the DOE.
Most high schools here and statewide are already utilizing a form of hybrid instruction, says Porter, including Machias Memorial High School, and Washington Academy. Local elementary schools are not, though, and would need to shift gears.
“Rose Gaffney would have to go to a hybrid model, which means as you know only half the students would be going half the time. They may be able to rotate in a Wednesday every other week so that it’s three days one week, two another, but it wouldn’t be anything like today.”
Should the DOE color code change to red, all schools would be advised to move to full remote instruction.
Regardless of the county color code, should a student or staff member test positive for COVID-19, Porter said the school would be closed.
“I really believe my action would be to close the school just so we could figure out a course of action,” he said.
Calais School Department Superintendent Ron Jenkins today, Oct. 28, announced all schools in his district will close until Nov. 30, on the heels of a spike in COVID-19 cases discovered in that city, including six positives reported within the Calais schools.
Currently, Calais Regional Hospital is the only official swab and send site in Washington County, having raised its hand to utilize state and federal grant monies to provide the service. CRH offers testing Monday through Friday from 8 to 10 a.m. and with the recent increase in demand, CRH has performed upwards of 150 tests each day this week, sometimes staying open beyond its two-hour window to finish them all.
Ellsworth Northern Light Hospital also offers drive-through testing, but both sites are at a distance of one hour from Machias. Down East Community Hospital in Machias does not offer testing to the general public.
So if we do encounter a large outbreak in this area, particularly in our schools, what can the CDC do to provide easy-access testing?
Responding to that question from this newspaper, Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew today said her office is working “aggressively on two different fronts” to solve this problem.
“First of all, finding existing sites in places like Machias where we could open up a swab and send site. We are also working on mobile testing options for schools so that if a school does have an outbreak we can figure out ways to bring people to the school to collect samples to send to our state lab to ensure that we have testing in the area,” said Lambrew. “This is an ongoing work that we do every single day throughout the state to try to make sure people do have access to testing and we are hopeful that we are able to at a minimum respond to an outbreak but also set up a site that will be open regularly in the area.”