From the Maine Department of Education
Continued and increased efforts are needed in communities statewide as we face the additional challenges brought on by compliance fatigue, the colder weather, and the holiday season. As such, Governor Mills has issued executive orders to tighten face covering requirements and limit the number of people gathering in any one indoor space.
As the case numbers and reach of COVID-19 continues to expand in our communities, our schools have been diligent about ensuring that the six requirements for in-person instruction are being implemented. This commitment is evident in the data analysis conducted by Maine CDC. Over the last 30 days, the new case rate in Maine schools, including both students and staff, was 8.8 cases per 10,000, compared to 19.9 cases per 10,000 in Maine overall. This may indicate that school settings are safer than other community settings, and this is likely due to your careful adherence to the health and safety requirements and guidelines.
Maine’s data and findings are aligned to three of the most recent national and international studies that examine the interplay of COVID-19 and schools, and the importance of keeping our schools open and operational wherever possible.
School and health officials in Scotland just published their analysis of COVID-19 within their systems. Their findings mirror those of Maine DHHS and CDC, and include no direct evidence that transmission of the virus within schools plays a significant role in driving rates of infection among children. Their data also found there is no difference between COVID-19 positivity rates in teachers and school staff relative to other worker groups of the same age.
In addition, they found that closing schools presents a serious risk of harm to the wellbeing of children and young people, particularly those who are vulnerable.
A study from Vermont found that “School closure alone has minimal effect because disease continues to spread via alternate social contacts in the community.”
And a recent analysis and statement from Children’s Hospital of Dartmouth-Hitchcock provides a regional lens and strongly affirms the relative safety and importance of in-person instruction for students,and the effectiveness of layered prevention measures for providing a safe learning environment.
These studies affirm Maine’s approach to the safety measures for schools. The six health and safety requirements, when taken together, create a layered approach that has been proven to reduce risk. This risk reduction model is designed so that if any one layer is missing or altered, the additional layers will be in place. The following recommendations from Maine CDC are additional precautions, or layers to the measures that schools are taking, that can be added to the current strategies.
Review and Enforce Indoor Gathering Limits: Ensure the gathering or congregating of people (including staff and students) in any one indoor setting, including hallways, entryways and areas where students may congregate, do not exceed 50. The limits are not for people who are actively travelling through an area and may have brief, incidental proximity, however any reductions in these areas add to the layers of protections. While most schools have already limited the number of students in classrooms, cafeterias, and buses, at this time additional precautions in the hallways and common areas of your building where people may gather are strongly recommended. These might include:
- Establish one-way hallways, if feasible, or use directional arrows with spacing markers for a minimum of 3 feet or greater between and among individuals.
- Provide markers and reminders for distancing in the hallways, outside of classrooms, bathrooms, cafeterias and other common areas. Post signs and reminders of health and safety requirements.
- Assign staff to monitor hallways, classrooms, and facility traffic to ensure physical distancing guidelines are followed.
- Stagger arrival and dismissal times and bell schedules to minimize hallway crowding.
- Utilize the flexibilities granted by the Fire Marshall regarding evacuation drills; hold table top exercises with students to review expectations, primary and secondary evacuation routes through the use of maps and discussion, and identify the classroom’s reunification location in the event of an actual emergency.
Increase structure around mask breaks: In addition to the time during which students may be eating or drinking with a minimum of 6’ physical distancing, school staff should offer only highly structured and well supervised mask breaks during the school day. Such mask breaks should be limited to 5 minutes each, up to a maximum of 15 minutes per day. Breaks should take place in a classroom cohort when possible.
During mask breaks, individuals:
- Must be stationary, ideally seated – or standing still if outdoors. Mask breaks should no longer take place during free-play/recess.
- Must be at least 6 feet from one another
- Should be facing the same direction
- Should not engage in conversation or other activity that could spread the virus (silent reading or a writing prompt or other individual activity is ideal).
Swapping out damp or soiled masks:
Develop safe processes for swapping out masks that become damp or soiled during the day. Teach and reinforce the safe removal, storage (in sealed plastic bags), and replacement of masks, adhering to the associated requirement of hand hygiene.
We hope that the guidance provided here will be helpful to you and your school communities. As always feel free to reach out to us directly if we can provide additional support or information.