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Flu outbreak empties MSSM dorm, classes continue

LIMESTONE, Maine — Due to an influenza outbreak on campus, the Maine School of Science and Mathematics emptied out its dormitory on Sunday and sent all 143 students home. 

About 20 percent of students from the residential magnet school were confirmed to have flu symptoms, so Executive Director Luke Shorty said he and MSSM staff sent all students home to make sure the “community as a whole was safe,” especially since they all live in one building.

“Just because 20 percent of our students had symptoms doesn’t mean there weren’t more students who potentially had the flu,” Shorty added. “You can have the flu for a day, not show symptoms, and still be contagious.”

Classes are continuing online, however, according to Shorty.

“What’s exciting is our ability to continue our courses,” Shorty said. “We’ve been doing distance education in different avenues, and this lets us go full bore and deliver the curriculum online.”

“Obviously,” he continued, “it doesn’t beat teaching students in person, but it at least allows you to deliver the content. We have a great faculty, and they really rolled up their sleeves and jumped into this.”

With vacation coming up next week, students have two weeks at home to recover.

MSSM staff took several precautionary measures when they learned of the outbreak last week, including distributing hand sanitizing lotion, individually wrapping cutlery in the cafeteria and using disposable plates to ensure those washing dishes were not exposed to potentially contagious material.

Dean of Students Matthew Grillo then made the decision to have the families of students pick them up individually to prevent the further spread of illness that a group bus ride may cause.

Shorty said students will have about two weeks of rest, and that he can not say if this will completely eliminate the illness.

“It breaks up the petri dish,” he said, “and that’s the big thing.”

Monday, Feb. 12, was MSSM’s first day without students on campus, and Shorty said the magnet school’s implementation of large-scale online learning was “a success.”

“We’ve never done it on this scale before,” Shorty said, “with all courses, and all 143 students, but yesterday was a success. We took attendance and everyone was in the meet-up.”

The classes were conducted via “Google Meet,” which allows for a synchronous learning environment in which students and their professors can communicate in real-time, he said. MSSM faculty also utilize online software called “Canvas,” which allows for the distribution of reading content and educational multimedia.

Staff were able to quickly troubleshoot any issues, according to Shorty.

“There were concerns about internet connection issues with some families,” he said, “and [staff] worked closely to find solutions, whether it’s going to a public library or visiting another family member. Some students even used cell phones with unlimited data to get everything.”

“It’s amazing,” Shorty continued. “The 21st century is helping us with the centuries old issue of influenza.”

This is not the first time MSSM encountered an outbreak, as the swine flu caused a similar situation roughly seven years ago, and caused the school to send students home a couple of days early before school vacation. Shorty said that, this time around, the flu seemed to hit the community very hard.

The executive director said he’s pleased with the school’s use of technology to maintain classes despite this outbreak.

“I am proud of the students, faculty, and families from all over the state and beyond that are willing to lean into this and give it a try,” he said.

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