Several Waldo County schools are dealing with illness outbreaks and absences. A couple of schools in Regional School Unit 71 are experiencing extensive illness-related absences, while Regional School Unit 20 in Searsport closed all of its schools from Dec. 7 to Dec. 12.

When schools experience a 15% or more absence rate among students and staff due to illness, they must report it to the state, according to Department of Health and Human Services Communications Director Jackie Farwell. However, schools are not required to close. When the majority of those cases are because of a single type of illness, it is considered an outbreak.

During the period when Searsport schools were closed, 17 schools had open respiratory illness outbreaks, Farwell said in an email to Journal staff. Three of those schools had COVID-19 outbreaks.

Superintendent Chris Downing said Searsport schools closed down for three days after each of the schools reported to the state that over 15% of its students were absent because of illness. Absences at the middle school peaked at about 20%.

A number of staff members also were out with illnesses or caring for family members with illnesses, Downing said. He could not identify any one respiratory virus as the main culprit causing the illnesses, but he thought it was a combination of viruses present in many schools.

The district did not move to virtual learning for those days and classes resumed Dec. 12. District officials felt it was most important to consider the students, staff and community’s safety first, he said.

Troy Howard Middle School and Capt. Albert Stevens Elementary School also reported around 15% student absences because of illnesses during that same week, according to Curriculum Coordinator Laura Miller. The Belfast area school district did not close any of its schools, although two of its schools had high rates of illness, Miller said. Superintendent Mary Alice McLean did not respond to requests for comment about whether the district was considering closing schools or moving to virtual leaning.

Similar to conditions in Searsport schools, there were multiple viruses proliferating in RSU 71 schools and no single virus could be identified as the main culprit for all the illnesses, Miller said. The administration is promoting frequent hand washing, social distancing and encouraging students to wear masks, though wearing them is optional.

When she received a message about the high rate of absentees, Annie Pinkerton, whose son is an eighth grader at Troy Howard, said she received little warning about the viruses proliferating through the school. In the two messages she did receive, she learned students were not being required to wear masks, which concerned her.

Pinkerton decided to pull her son out of school for a few days because he was anxious about possibly bringing one of the viruses home, where several family members have chronic illnesses, she said. She found herself scrambling to get schoolwork from his teachers so he could learn from home, but said they were all accommodating and understanding about her reasons for keeping him home.

But the safety of virtual learning at home comes with concerns about the impact isolation can have on students. Her son is concerned about not seeing his friend group at school and not being there to support them through other school stressors like bullying, she said.

Pediatrician Adeline Winkes with Pen Bay Pediatrics in Rockport said schools are experiencing high rates of respiratory illnesses like influenza, RSV and COVID-19. Because many students do not get tested when they are sick, it can be difficult to know if one is proliferating more than others in a school.

Winkes pointed out that masking and social distancing in schools for the last few years could account for what seems to be a wider variety of illnesses in schools this year, though it is still unclear whether the strains of respiratory viruses are more severe this year.

People should wash their hands, wear masks around people who have symptoms of a respiratory illness and get vaccinated to help protect them against getting sick, she said.

Winkes recommends that parents keep kids home if they have symptoms like a fever, uncontrolled cough and a runny nose. Parents should contact their children’s doctor with any concerns and recommends taking children to be seen by a doctor if they have symptoms like a high fever and breathing troubles.

It is hard to predict when the season of illnesses will end because it started earlier this year, Winkes said. Usually that happens in the spring when people start gathering outside more.

She understands why people are so concerned this year, but speaking as a pediatrician, she said these situations are not that unusual.

COVID-19 vaccines and booster shots are available across the state at no cost, Farwell said. Those 6 months and older are eligible for the flu and COVID-19 vaccine. Those 5 years and older are eligible for COVID-19 booster shots.