Schools prepare for more illness after outbreak at Cape Elizabeth

Oct. 28—An outbreak at Cape Elizabeth High School tied to COVID-19 kept students out of school on Friday and forced the postponement of a football playoff game, but weekend activities will be held as scheduled.

When students and staff return to school on Monday, there will be a strong focus on mitigation strategies — including recommended masking and hand washing — to prevent COVID-19 and other illnesses from spreading.

Officials in Cape Elizabeth and other school districts are bracing for a cold and flu season as respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, and other contagious illnesses are already spreading through the area. Federal health data released Friday show influenza is hitting the United States earlier and harder than in recent years, possibly becoming the worst flu season in the last 13 years.

"I think many schools are faced with considering mitigation strategies that need to remain in place regardless of what the illness is. Those are our best protections," said Michelle McClellan, Cape Elizabeth's assistant superintendent.

In neighboring South Portland, the school department has not seen an increase in reports of COVID-19, Superintendent Timothy Matheney said.

"We are, of course, concerned about an increase in illnesses as we head into the traditional cold and flu season," he said. "That's why we hosted a flu vaccine clinic in the district earlier this month, and we're encouraging the school community to seek boosters if they are eligible."

Portland Public Schools is seeing an uptick in student absences in some schools due to a variety of respiratory illnesses, including some COVID-19 cases, but the numbers are not alarming at this point, district spokesperson Tess Nacelewicz said. The schools are promoting thorough hand and respiratory hygiene, and are asking staff and students to stay home when sick.

There currently are four COVID-19 outbreaks associated with Maine schools, including the one in Cape Elizabeth, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. A spokesperson did not respond Friday to a request for the names of other schools in outbreak status.

The Maine Department of Education no longer reports outbreaks. For the past two school years, the department had regularly posted updates and reported COVID-19 cases at schools across the state.

Administrators decided to close Cape Elizabeth High School on Friday so the custodial staff could deep clean the building after 126 students, or 21% of students, and six staff members were out because of illness. McClellan said about 16 people tested positive for COVID-19, while others have COVID-like symptoms but negative tests. Some parents have reported their child has flu-like symptoms, she said.

Whenever the absence rate reaches 15%, schools are required to notify the Maine CDC, which investigates to determine if there is an outbreak of any illness, not just COVID-19. McClellan said that requirement has been in place for many years and has been used to identify outbreaks of chicken pox, flu and other illnesses.

The state determined Wednesday that the high school was in a COVID outbreak and school officials were notified on Thursday. McClellan said the CDC considers positive cases and cases where someone has COVID-like symptoms.

The Cape Elizabeth school board voted Thursday to "highly recommend masks" be worn in schools determined to be in outbreak status. More students and staff were already wearing masks in the past week, McClellan said.

The district rescheduled a playoff football game against Fryeburg Academy that was supposed to take place Friday night because the football team was particularly hard hit by a variety of illnesses, McClellan said. The game will be played Monday. Other games scheduled for this weekend will be played as scheduled.

Michael Burnham, executive director of the Maine Principals' Association, said he was not aware of any playoff games that have been impacted by illness other than the Cape Elizabeth-Fryeburg Academy game. School officials typically handle rescheduling games and the MPA only gets involved if they have run out of makeup dates.

Burnham expects schools will have to postpone more games because of illness this winter but said "that's not different than it's ever been."

When Cape Elizabeth students and staff return to school, there will be added emphasis on hand hygiene and sanitizing, and people will be encouraged to wear masks, McClellan said. The district already updated its ventilation systems and will continue to look for opportunities for students to be outdoors.

"It's a challenging situation," she said. "We are so much into learning and teaching. We're excited we are able to focus on that, but we know we'll need to continue to address health and safety throughout the year."