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Aroostook schools given approval to stay with ‘green’ model of learning

AROOSTOOK COUNTY, Maine — Schools across the region have maintained their “green” status from the Maine Department of Education, which means they can hold in-person classes, after-school activities and sports if COVID-19 has not greatly impacted their district.

The department updated its biweekly color coding system on Friday that classifies whether Maine’s counties should hold in-person classes or consider hybrid or remote learning.

The DOE uses a number of factors to determine how counties are classified, including recent case rates, positivity rates and whether schools are able to meet the health and safety requirements of students and follow CDC recommended social distancing and cleaning protocols.

But being labeled green does not mean there is no risk of COVID-19 spread among school members, or that schools have to teach in-person classes. Schools are encouraged to make decisions based on community spread and how many positive cases are found among people closely associated with the schools.

As of Friday, there were 792 active cases in Aroostook County, according to Maine CDC data.

For County school officials, the decision to keep schools open or opt for hybrid or remote learning will depend on each district’s own circumstances. Prior to Friday’s news, SAD 42 in Mars Hill announced plans to continue their current remote learning period until at least Monday, Jan. 25. At least 15 people associated with the district have tested positive as a result of community spread.

Meanwhile, SAD 45 in Washburn began a hybrid learning model on Jan. 11 in response to the increase of positive cases in Aroostook County. 

One of central Aroostook’s largest districts, SAD 1, has struggled to maintain consistent in-person schedules for several of its schools during the past week. Presque Isle High School and Middle School dismissed students early on Tuesday and Thursday as a result of people testing positive. 

Three people associated with Pine Street Elementary School tested positive this week but none of them had come to the school since Jan. 8, according to a Friday update from SAD 1 superintendent Ben Greenlaw. The school resumed classes on Tuesday, Jan. 12.

Presque Isle High School has resumed in-person classes, while the middle school will welcome back students Tuesday. Greenlaw stated on Friday that the schools will continue striving for in-person learning as long as Aroostook’s DOE designation remains green and the district has enough substitute teachers available.

“I continue to believe that in-person learning is best for our students. In-person learning provides routine, structure, personal connection, meals and increased academic and personal support,” Greenlaw said. “We will continue to follow Maine CDC guidelines and monitor active cases in our community to keep our students and staff safe. “

Similarly, Caribou High School chose to maintain their current green mode of instruction after one person associated with the school tested positive and began isolation.

In southern Aroostook, Houlton Southside School recently reported its second positive case within a month on Jan. 11. Superintendent Ellen Halliday cited research about the low rates of COVID-19 originating within K-12 schools as a reason behind the school’s decision to maintain in-person classes for students not deemed close contacts.

In the St. John Valley, students in the Valley Unified School Administrative Units — SAD 27, SAD 33 and Madawaska School Department — ended a period of remote learning Jan. 14 and will take part in a hybrid learning plan from Jan. 19 to 29, after which they will go back to in-person classes. Valley Unified made the decision as a precaution amidst rising cases in the St. John Valley.

The Maine DOE plans to announce new and revised county school color designations on Friday, Jan. 29.

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