The number of COVID-19 cases in Portland city schools multiplied more than 25 times after students returned from their holiday break, from 14 positive cases before the holidays to 356 active positive cases as of Jan. 7.
The majority of the active cases have come up in the last eight days, mostly among elementary school students, Portland Public Schools officials said.
Superintendent Xavier Botana told the School Board on Jan. 4 that the rising case count is yet another indicator of community spread, rather than an isolated problem in the schools.
“It’s clear that the prevalence of COVID shows no signs of abating anytime soon,” Botana said.
As a result, the School Department has updated its guidelines on contact tracing, quarantine length, and defining when students are safe to return to schools after quarantine.
This week the schools adopted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s latest recommended guidelines for quarantine, down to five days from 10, as long as infected students have “resolving symptoms.”
PPS defines symptoms as “resolving” if students go 24 hours without a fever and show improvement in other symptoms, for example, only “an occasional cough, or some sneezing and runny nose.”
The Maine Department of Education recently made changes to its COVID-19 policies, too. In schools where masks are required, students exposed to a positive case are no longer required to quarantine.
PPS said its data shows fewer than 1 percent of students who are considered close contacts end up contracting the virus. This trend is attributed to schoolwide masking and prevention tactics.
Botana said the new guidelines also give PPS the option to accept home-administered tests to allow symptomatic students to return to school. To do so, students must show two consecutive negative tests at least 24 hours apart, and they must have resolving symptoms.
These new practices are intended to allow school nurses to further focus on case management instead of spending most of their time on contact tracing.
PPS is also adding three med-tech positions to help expand testing capabilities in the high schools. Pooled testing for high school athletes and those involved in co-curricular activities was expected to begin Jan. 10.
The School Department is still recommending that eligible staff members get their COVID-19 vaccine booster shots and plans to offer an incentive of $100 to staff who receive the booster, similar to the department’s initial vaccination incentive.
New contract boosts minimum wage for some school employees
A new contract with the Benefit Association of School Employees sets the starting wage for these employees at a minimum of $15 an hour.
The increase from $13.26 per hour for bus drivers, custodians, and food service workers in the Portland Public Schools is retroactive to last June, when the previous contract expired. It will be in effect through the 2022-2023 school year.
School Board members unanimously approved the new contract on Jan. 4. The minimum wage in the city is $13 per hour.
The School Department’s lead negotiator, Drummond Woodsum labor and employment attorney Campbell Badger, said on Jan. 4. that the starting salaries for these employees were “falling below area averages” and as a result, the board authorized his team to negotiate a higher minimum.
In a PPS newsletter, BASE President Elizabeth Bryant said all parties worked “tirelessly” to put together a contract that was acceptable to BASE members and city taxpayers.
Superintendent Xavier Botana said the increase can help address staff shortages the schools have faced in the last year, including an ongoing effort to hire more bus drivers.
— Evan Edmonds