Public schools in Portland, Maine, are once again requiring students, staff, and visitors to wear face masks indoors and on school buses because of a local surge in COVID-19 cases.
Superintendent Xavier Botana informed families on Tuesday that an indoor mask mandate would go back into effect on Thursday, May 12, WGME-TV reported. "This step has become necessary to help keep everyone safe as positive cases of COVID-19 are rapidly increasing in our community and schools," Botana wrote in a letter.
Portland schools had lifted mask requirements in March when it appeared the COVID-19 pandemic was slowing down after two years. But according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Maine currently has the highest rate of new COVID-19 infections in the U.S.
Cumberland County, where Portland Public Schools are located, was categorized as an area of "high" viral spread by the CDC's COVID-19 Community Levels tracker last week. Botana said that pooled testing results and local wastewater data backed up the CDC's findings.
"When the transmission of COVID in our community is that high, the CDC recommends that everyone wear a mask indoors," Botana said.
“I understand how disappointing this change may be to many of you who stopped wearing a mask when masking became optional on March 14 at a time of low case counts. However, I cautioned at that time that if our school and community data changed, we might need to increase our mitigation strategies, including returning to masking in some schools or district wide,” he wrote to school families.
“This is now a time of high transmission, but few people in our schools are wearing masks. Adding to the risk is the fact that end-of-year ceremonies and other gatherings are taking place. While we are not recommending changes to these events, all these factors make a return to required masking the safest course at this time,” he said.
According to the CDC, new sub-variants of the Omicron strain are responsible for the surge in positive cases in the northeast. The latest data reported for Maine found that cases and hospitalizations rose sharply in recent weeks, with 1,001 new cases reported Thursday and a total of 221 new hospitalizations. Of those hospitalized on Thursday, 31 have been placed in critical care and two were on ventilators, the Portland Press Herald reports.
Public schools in Bangor have also reinstated mask mandates in response to the virus surge. Additionally, school districts in several counties with high rates of transmission have announced a return to remote learning Thursday and Friday because of staffing shortages.