The Perfect Enemy | On a Maine island, school gets out early when COVID-19 strands teachers on the mainland - Press Herald
May 26, 2022

On a Maine island, school gets out early when COVID-19 strands teachers on the mainland – Press Herald

On a Maine island, school gets out early when COVID-19 strands teachers on the mainland  Press Herald

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The Rockland ferry terminal. Stephen Betts/Courier-Gazette

Shaun Johnson is still learning just how much the ferry controls your life when you live an hour from the mainland.

Johnson, the principal at North Haven Community School, moved to the Penobscot Bay island from Washington, D.C., in August. For the past three days, access to the island 12 miles off the coast of Rockland was limited after COVID-19 cases forced the cancellation of more than a half-dozen ferry runs.

“When you’re driving down to the village, not seeing the boat there gives everyone out here a significant dose of anxiety,” Johnson said. “You feel truly cut off.”

On Monday, the school’s 47 students were sent home early because a third of the teachers were stuck on the mainland. Some teachers commute back to the mainland on weekends, while others had left the island for various reasons like running errands, Johnson said.

Paul Merrill, spokesperson for the Maine Department of Transportation, said a member of a ferry crew tested positive for COVID-19 and it spread to the rest of the crew. The Captain Neal Burgess ferry normally makes three runs to North Haven each day, but the schedule was significantly reduced on Saturday, Sunday and Monday.

Merrill said a crew and vessel that serve Vinalhaven were able to do some of the North Haven runs, which resulted in fewer runs to Vinalhaven. He was not able to say exactly how many ferry runs to each island were impacted. On North Haven, islanders said between seven and nine runs were canceled.

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“It was a few days of moving the chess pieces around while we worked around sick calls,” Merrill said.

The ferry schedule is expected to return to normal Tuesday.

On Monday, the Maine State Ferry Terminal in Rockland was closed for several hours for cleaning after an employee there tested positive for the virus. Merrill said he did not know if that case was directly related to the cases among the ferry crew.

A CRITICAL LINK

North Haven is one of Maine’s 14 unbridged island communities. The population of the Penobscot Bay island is about 355 year-round, but swells significantly in the summer.

The Captain Neal Burgess provides a critical link between North Haven and the mainland. During the winter, weather can cancel ferry runs, but longer disruptions are unusual. The ferry typically stays at North Haven overnight, but that was not the case over the weekend.

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Johnson said a longtime islander “couldn’t recall a time when we had no ferry on the island.”

“The boat wasn’t docked here. That has implications for emergencies and the general state of anxiety,” Johnson said. “There was a good chunk of time over the weekend and (Monday) when people didn’t know when the ferry would resume.”

On Sunday, school officials announced that students would be sent home at 11 a.m. Monday because of staffing issues from the ferry cancellations. All of the staff members who had been stuck on the mainland were able to get back to the island on Monday on other boats or a late morning ferry run added to the schedule. But some had to leave their vehicles on the mainland and were going to need rides until they could retrieve them, Johnson said.

School is expected to be back to its normal schedule on Tuesday.

Alex Hodges, a Spanish teacher, was one of the teachers who left the island early in the weekend and had to figure out how to get home.

The ferry service notified residents on Saturday morning that service would be modified over the weekend, but Hodges needed to drop her daughter off with the child’s father on another island. When she made that “snap decision” to leave on Saturday to make sure her daughter didn’t miss the visit, she anticipated coming home on the ferry late Sunday afternoon.

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‘PART OF ISLAND LIVING’

On Sunday morning, Hodges found out that ferry run was called off and it looked like she’d have to spend a second night on the mainland. Luckily, someone posted on the island community page that he’d be taking his boat from North Haven to Rockland and said anyone who needed a ride back to the island could hop on.

Hodges took him up on the offer, but had to leave her car on the mainland. On Monday, she took advantage of the early release day to go back to Rockland to retrieve it.

“It’s just part of island living,” she said. “You have to be adaptable and go with the flow.”

Before last weekend, the Department of Transportation had avoided more than an occasional cancellation because of COVID-19 exposures by filling in gaps with other employees, Merrill said.

But like other employers in Maine, the department faces an ongoing staffing problem and filling the gaps isn’t always easy.

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“The biggest challenge underlying all of this has been the difficult job market,” Merrill said. “We have more vacancies around the department than we’d like to have. It’s increasingly difficult to hire and retain people.”


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