A Maine school district and some of its parents are on opposing sides of holding a homecoming dance.
Leaders at Regional School Unit 21, which includes town like Kennebunk and Kennebunkport, said they believe the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak made it unsafe to hold the traditional school-sanctioned homecoming dance this weekend.
While a scheduled football game and parade will still happen with precautions to curb COVID-19, school officials believed the inability to effectively social distance or implement other precautions at a dance made it too difficult to hold safely, even with eligible students in the district vaccinated at a rate of 90-94%, according to Maine CDC data.
"I really thought that a homecoming dance would be way too risky," said Dr. Donald Burgess, a consulting pediatrician for RSU 21, during a meeting of the district's school board earlier this week.
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Part of the district's concern is the number of students who would have to be quarantined and contact traced for a potentially extended period of time if an outbreak were to occur.
"Tracing close contacts at a dance? Impossible. If you get one positive at a dance, you'd quarantine that whole group that's at the dance, that's what the CDC would probably decide," he said.
Another concern is a potential shift to online learning if there were to be an outbreak.
"Our primary goal is to keep students in school across the district, in all of our buildings, in their classrooms for five days a week of in-person instruction. With the recent evidence of in-school transmission, breakthrough cases in vaccinated individuals, on top of increasing risks due to the delta variant, it seems most prudent to wait on plans for dances until we feel it's safe. We want as few students in quarantine as possible," said Dr. Terri Cooper, superintendent for RSU 21.
However, a group of parents has organized a dance off of school property as a private event this Sunday. It will coincide with the school's homecoming but will not be an official district-sponsored dance.
"I'm a parent of a junior, they've already lost so much," said Sherry Lacasse, one of the people putting together the private event at a venue in the town of Lyman.
She said 175 tickets to the dance had been sold by Friday morning, with parents having to purchase tickets for children.
More than $5,000 had also been raised during a GoFundme to put the out-of-district dance together.
"This is about choice, parents choosing for their kids, kids choosing for themselves what they want to do and how comfortable they feel with regard to their safety in COVID-19," she said.
Lacasse added that the dance she is helping put together will have food, chaperones and a police presence as typical school dances do and will have options for students to be indoors or outdoors with or without masks, with masks and sanitizer provided.
"We don't take it lightly," she said of the risk of an outbreak at the private homecoming event.
While Lacasse said she was initially disappointed that RSU 21 would not hold an official dance, even if it were outside, she also explained that she is now frustrated and confused because school leaders are discouraging students from coming to her event.
"I don't understand why it's any of their business. This is an outside-of-school event" she said, comparing it to a concert or wedding students might attend elsewhere.
"Given record COVID-positive numbers in Maine and based on medical advice, RSU 21 is encouraging students and parents not to attend a privately-organized homecoming dance planned for Kennebunk High School students on Sept. 26," reads a statement the district.
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Cooper, the superintendent, was not available for an interview about the offsite dance on Friday. She did however, give a statement that reads:
"We are all trying to return to the many traditions that make attending KHS the experience that it is supposed to be. However, risks associated with a dance whereby close contact is unavoidable are just too great at this time. As a result, RSU 21 decided not to host a Homecoming dance for the well-being of all students. I am concerned for those who do not participate. My hope is that the sponsors of this dance will require attending students to follow safety measures."
Lascasse said she understands school leaders' concerns but believes she and other parents have taken as many precautions as possible in planning an event they view as essential for their children's high school experience.
"It's not like we're making fun of the people on the other side. We listened and did everything the best we can," she said.