On an island in Maine, school comes out early as COVID-19 stranded teachers on the mainland
On an island in Maine, school comes out early as COVID-19 stranded teachers on the mainland

On an island in Maine, school comes out early as COVID-19 stranded teachers on the mainland

Rockland Ferry Terminal. Stephen Betts / Courier-Gazette

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

Johnson, principal at North Haven Community School, moved to Penobscot Bay Island from Washington DC in August. For the past three days, access to the island 12 miles off the coast of Rockland has been restricted after COVID-19 cases forced the cancellation of more than half a dozen ferry departures.

“When you drive down to the village, it gives everyone out here a significant dose of anxiety not to see the boat there,” Johnson said. “You feel really cut off.”

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

Paul Merrill, spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation, said one employee tested positive for COVID-19 and that it spread to the entire crew the person that person worked with. Captain Neal Burgess’s ferry usually sails to North Haven three times each day, but the schedule was significantly reduced on Saturday, Sunday and Monday.

Merrill said a crew and a vessel serving Vinalhaven were able to perform some of the North Haven runs, resulting in fewer races to Vinalhaven. He was unable to say exactly how many ferry routes to each island were affected. At North Haven, islanders said between seven and nine races were canceled.

“It was a couple of days of moving the chess pieces around while we worked around sick leave,” 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 due to cleaning after an employee tested positive for the virus. Merrill said he did not know if that case was directly related to the cases among the ferry crew.

North Haven is one of Maine’s 14 island communities without a bridge. The population of Penobscot Bay Island is about 355 year-round, but swells significantly in the summer.

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

Johnson said a longtime islander “could not remember a time when we had no ferry on the island.”

“The boat was not docked here. It has consequences for emergencies and the general state of anxiety,” Johnson said. “There was a good deal of time over the weekend and (Monday) where people did not know when the ferry would resume.”

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

The school is expected to be back to normal time on Tuesday.

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

The ferry service notified residents Saturday morning that service would be changed over the weekend, but Hodges had to drop off his daughter with the child’s father on another island. When she made the “kind decision” to leave on Saturday to make sure her daughter did not miss the visit, she expected to get home on the ferry late Sunday afternoon.

Sunday morning, Hodges found out that the ferry departure was interrupted, and it looked like she was going to spend another night on the mainland. Fortunately, someone wrote on the island community’s page that he would take his boat from North Haven to Rockland and said anyone who needed a trip back to the island could hop on.

Hodges accepted the offer, but had to leave his car on the mainland. On Monday, she took advantage of the early release day to head back to Rockland to pick it up.

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

Prior to last weekend, MaineDOT had avoided more than an occasional cancellation due to COVID-19 exposures by filling in gaps with other employees, Merrill said.

But like other employers in Maine, the department faces a persistent staffing problem, and filling in the gaps is not always easy.

“The biggest challenge behind all of this has been the difficult labor market,” Merrill said. “We have more vacancies around the department than we would like. It is becoming increasingly difficult to hire and retain people. ”

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