Dear RSU #34 Community,
As you are likely aware, there is great discussion going on in many school districts about the future of mitigation strategies such as mask wearing. RSU #34 is having those discussions as well, and I write to provide an update of where we have been, where we are, and possible paths forward.
Like all Maine districts RSU #34 has some local latitude in how it conducts operations, but in combination with our safety concerns must also address things such as the state’s Standard Operating Procedures and safety plans required for some of our federal funding. Like many decisions in education, mitigation strategies are both complex and complicated, involving unintended consequences, the need for understandable protocols that our youngest learners can follow, and - in the forefront - the diverse needs of our students and the staff who care for them.
Throughout the pandemic - nearly two years now - our school community has done a fantastic job of rapidly adapting to the needs of the day to serve our students well. We have kept schools open as much or more than nearly everyone else in the state, have kept our focus on students, and have much to be proud of.
Candidly, there have been many times that were “touch and go,” particularly during the Omicron surge. Nationwide staffing shortages have impacted education as well as most other fields, and we have had some open positions all year. Substitutes have been very hard to find, to help us address the needs from those open positions, the frequent needs when our staff have been in quarantine or isolation, and the day-to-day absences for other illnesses. Our staff as a whole has pitched in tremendously throughout the year, covering each others’ classes, taking on unusual responsibilities, etc., to make it all work and keep our doors open. Only twice this year were circumstances such that a school needed to go remote for a short time; we have worked very hard to avoid that.
This school year, both through the protection they provide in slowing the spread of COVID, and through the opportunities they provide in the state’s Standard Operating Procedure for COVID, mitigation strategies have had a huge impact, especially vaccination, masking, and our commitment to pooled testing.
Recent weeks have seen a marked decline in our local cases from the peak of the Omicron surge. It is important to note that case rates are still very high; what seems low today compared to mid-January would have seemed awful in September. We are fortunate that while dangerous, the Omicron variant of COVID is somewhat more mild than its predecessors, especially to those who have chosen to be vaccinated.
At its recent February meeting, the School Board reviewed what we are seeing locally, and chose to stay the course for one more month with our full set of mitigation strategies, including universal masking indoors at our schools. Many of us are hopeful that a shift to optional masking is near. We anticipate a bump in cases after the February school vacation (due to travel and other mixing), and will continue to closely monitor our cases. We will fully review the situation with the School Board at its March 16th meeting, and if the trend continues with case decline and more mild variants, hope to shift to optional masking soon after that.
Under the current state Standard Operating Procedure, universal masking has kept a lot of kids out of quarantine. We urge our families to consider two actions. First, to sign up for our weekly pooled testing, which is a quick and painless swab (participation in pooled testing provides a quarantine exception under the state’s rules). Second, we encourage families to seek vaccination, talking with their school nurse or primary care provider if they have questions about vaccination (vaccination provides another quarantine exception under the state’s rules).
This year we have begun to do more and more normal things - band concerts, athletics, after school programs, and more. We look ahead to the brighter days of spring, and with it, hopefully even more return to normal.
David A. Walker, Superintendent of Schools