Portland schools respond to seasonal COVID-19 spike

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Portland Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana last week acknowledged the rising trends in school COVID-19 cases and explained the thinking behind upcoming winter sports guidelines.

Portland Public Schools’ guidelines issued last week for pandemic health and safety during winter sports said student participants, staff, and spectators will be required to wear masks at all times during indoor events.

Xavier Botana
Portland Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana: “The trends that you’re seeing at the state level are certainly the trends we’re seeing in our schools.”

Student-athletes must be vaccinated or participate in pooled testing, which will begin early in January for high school students.

Botana said administrators didn’t want to keep students from competing, which is why they didn’t issue a vaccination mandate. He said high school students who are unvaccinated will still able to be involved in co-curricular activities and will begin participating in the pooled testing as soon as it becomes available.

COVID-19 cases are on track to match or exceed the numbers during the last school year, with more than half the number of positive cases they had at this point last year, Botana said.

He acknowledged that schools are not immune to community spread, and said the goal is to continue maintaining several layers of protection against COVID-19: vaccinations, masking, and maintaining precautions in the winter months.

Botana said school officials remain confident that all the mitigation layers in place have helped keep more students in school.

As of Dec. 3, there were 60 active cases among students across the city, most of those in the elementary and high schools.

The School Department’s most recent COVID-19 update said an increase of positive cases over the past few weeks matches the trend among children and teens statewide: COVID-19 cases are rising among those under 20 years old more than any other cohort, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The trends that you’re seeing at the state level are certainly the trends we’re seeing in our schools,” Botana added, noting the bulk of Portland cases last school year were recorded between November and February.

Pooled PCR testing, which includes more than 3,000 students in elementary and middle schools, has been successful, according to the Dec. 3 update. The testing is designed to detect cases at low levels and catch them before individuals become infectious, which helps to reduce the spread.

In November, the Portland Public Schools gave out almost 1,000 first doses of the Pfizer vaccine to students between the ages of 5 and 11. Second doses are set to take place throughout December.

Throughout the calendar year, as many as 900 students have had to quarantine, but the structures in place, including providing meals and access to learning materials while students are in quarantine, have worked reasonably well, Botana said.

He said the volunteer meal delivery program is evidence of the community’s engagement with and continued support of the School Department, which has had to make difficult decisions with limited data.

Going forward, Botana said the Portland Public Schools maintains “ambitious goals” about how to improve as a school district, as well as maintaining a safe and healthy environment for students.

While the spread of COVID-19 in the community may have tempered progress, he said officials expect to continue improving and emphasizing student safety, with the hope that regulations can be loosened as time goes on.