The administration of Gov. Janet Mills July 31 gave schools in all 16 counties an initial assessment that would allow them the option to have in-person education in September.

The updated guidance is to assist school communities in making their decisions about how to resume instruction this fall in the face of COVID-19, according to a news release from the Maine Department of Education. This guidance includes the Health Advisory System that classifies counties’ relative risk by color as well as updated requirements for schools to reopen safely.

The Health Advisory System is a collaboration among the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The previously announced classifications were developed to categorize counties based on quantitative and qualitative data about COVID-19 including, but not limited to recent data on case rates, positivity rates and syndromic data (e.g., symptoms of influenza or COVID-19). This system categorizes counties by three-color based designations: red, yellow and green.

The initial assessment released July 31 showed that 16 Maine counties are currently categorized as “green,” suggesting a relatively low COVID-19 risk at this time and that in-person instruction can be adopted as long as schools can implement the six requirements for safely opening schools in the fall.

While COVID-19 remains more prevalent in Cumberland, York, Androscoggin and Sagadahoc counties than in other Maine counties, the assessment pertains to the unique circumstances of schools and currently indicates relatively limited risk statewide. All counties, like the state as a whole, have COVID-19 prevalence below that of virtually all other states, according to the news release.

Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said during a July 31 briefing that green in this case is not like at a racetrack, but going cautiously through a car wash.

Circumstances could change before the official start of the school year, the state pointed out. The Health Advisory System reflects ongoing analysis of evolving data. The information will be updated every two weeks, serving as one piece of information that school and district leaders can use to make decisions about how to deliver education this fall.

The first day of school is scheduled for Sept. 8.

“Today, we are providing additional guidance to school districts as they decide how to proceed with the school year,” said Maine Education Commissioner Pender Makin.

“While I’m grateful to know that our state continues to be relatively safe due to the vigilance of Maine people, this risk evaluation is intended to be, and should be, just one of several variables that local school districts take into consideration as they make decisions that are best for their communities.

"We anticipate that in many cases schools in low risk areas will open this fall using a hybrid learning model in order to best protect the healthy and safety of their students and provide them with the most effective education possible. It is our goal to support them through this challenging time.”

The requirements include

  1. Symptom screenings before coming to school
  2. Physical distancing and school facilities
  3. Masks/face coverings
  4. Hand hygiene
  5. Personal Protective Equipment
  6. Return to school after illness

A school administrative unit may opt for hybrid instruction if its buildings or readiness make adhering to these requirements a challenge.

Maine DOE updated the requirements based on further analysis and public feedback to its Framework for Returning to Classroom Instruction. This includes changing the requirement to wear face coverings to a recommendation for children ages two to four, when developmentally appropriate. This reflects feedback provided by experts and aligns school and child care guidance. It also adds recommendations on school activities like music classes.

Gov. Mills announced July 17 that these science-based health and safety requirements, which follow national best practices, will be financially supported by up to $165 million in Federal CARES Act funding to be distributed to school systems across Maine.

The Mills Administration views the funding as an important initial investment to help schools prepare for in-classroom instruction but recognizes that more funding is necessary for ongoing operations. The Administration is hopeful that Congress will provide greater aid to Maine school systems in the coming weeks and months.

“These designations are a tool for local school communities to use as they prepare for the coming academic year,” Shah said in the news release. “They’ll be updated every two weeks based on the latest Maine CDC data analysis and information from medical providers throughout the state.”