The Star-Herald

SAD 1 board addresses COVID concerns, reports ‘significant increase’ in cases

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — School board members from SAD 1 spent the majority of their regular meeting Wednesday listening to concerns from local parents on COVID-19 response guidelines and advocating for what they see as a need for continued prevention measures.

Throughout the first hour of the hour-and-a-half-long meeting, a dozen parents and district members spoke during the board’s public comment period. The majority of speakers objected to SAD 1’s current COVID policies, which include universal masking, voluntary participation in pooled testing, social distancing and quarantine requirements for students and staff deemed close contacts of positive cases.

Most speakers, all of whom hailed from Presque Isle and surrounding towns, suggested that the board hold a special meeting to hear feedback from more parents. Many also advocated for making masks optional, canceling scheduled vaccination clinics for children aged 5 to 11, eliminating or adjusting certain quarantine requirements and increasing remote learning options for quarantined students.

“I am standing here tonight asking for a setting in which parents, teachers and school board members can sit down and talk,” said Dawn Casella of Presque Isle, whose two children attend SAD 1 schools. “There are parents who couldn’t be here tonight due to quarantines that I know would appreciate this option as well.”

Several people spoke in support of the district’s universal masking and other policies, including Danielle Fienburg of Presque Isle. Fienburg and her family recently moved to the region from New Jersey and her two children attend local schools. She recalled one young boy in her son’s New Jersey classroom who was hospitalized with a serious COVID-19 infection and suffered long-term respiratory issues as a result.

“Ninety-nine percent of kids might not get bad COVID but the 1 percent of kids who do aren’t as lucky,” Fienburg said. “I was relieved when you started requiring masks.”

SAD 1 school board members Jim Bubar (left) and Lucy Richard and superintendent Ben Greenlaw listen to parents’ concerns about COVID guidelines during the board’s meeting on Wednesday. (Melissa Lizotte | The Star Herald)

Per public comment rules, school board members and district administrators could not ask questions of or directly discuss topics with anyone who spoke. The board did not take action regarding the suggested special meeting.

But during his monthly COVID-19 update, Superintendent Ben Greenlaw made note of parents’ concerns and emphasized the district’s need to follow current Maine CDC guidelines.

“All school districts in Maine are required to follow a Standard Operating Procedure when they detect a positive COVID case,” Greenlaw said. “If a student was within six feet of someone [who tested positive] for 15 minutes or more, they are considered a close contact.”

In the last 30 days, SAD 1 has seen a “significant increase” in positive cases, with 39 total reported, according to Greenlaw. Previously, Greenlaw had reported a total of 53 cases for the school year thus far, which is close to the same number of cases for the entire 2020-21 school year.

But unlike last year, the Maine CDC has established exceptions to their 10-day quarantine guidelines that have helped more students and staff remain in school, he said. This includes exceptions for anyone fully vaccinated for two weeks or more after their final shot and students enrolled in pooled testing.

One of the most important exceptions to the quarantine rules is the district’s universal masking policy, Greenlaw said. Any Maine school that requires masks does not have to quarantine vaccinated students so long as they were three to six feet away from someone who tested positive.

“If we removed masks, we’d probably see 20 to 30 more students [per COVID case] who would have to quarantine,” Greenlaw said. “[Because of masks and pooled testing] there are usually five or six students per case who have to quarantine.”

“I understand peoples’ frustrations,” he continued. “We all want our kids in school, but we’re required to follow these rules to keep as many out of quarantine as possible.”

The next SAD 1 school board meeting will be held at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 15, in the Presque Isle High School cafeteria.

 

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