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It’s not that testing and quarantine rules are too strict or schools too cautious. It’s that too many people are sick.

So many bus drivers were out sick with COVID this week that the Bonny Eagle school district, one of the largest in the state, was forced to cancel classes for a day, then send most of its students to remote learning for the rest of the week.

Keeping kids at home this late in the pandemic is not where any of us want to be. But it is likely to be the norm as this wave of the virus rockets towards its peak.

And it won’t be because of testing and quarantining policies that are too strict or cautious, as some claim. It will be because too many people are sick.

Maine’s experience with the deadly delta variant has been bad enough to upset our best-laid plans. Now the more transmissible, if less severe, omicron variant is bound to take over. If Maine is like everywhere else, the new variant will push case numbers to new heights.

Even if the peak is likely to be short in duration, and the illness itself somewhat less severe, the sheer numbers mean a lot of people will be sick at the same time.

Just look a little to the south. In Boston on Tuesday and Wednesday, more than 1,000 school staff were out. In nearby Watertown, 17 perceent of the staff was out sick. Pittsfield and Weymouth were both forced to cancel classes for lack of staff.

In those cases, schools weren’t closed because of an overabundance of caution; they were closed because they didn’t have enough healthy people to watch over students, much less educate them.

Clearly, students need to be in school as much as possible, and shutting down schools, as we’ve seen in the past two years, can be tremendously harmful to students’ education, mental health and emotional development.

For those reasons, we favor keeping schools open when at all possible. The COVID mitigation protocols put in place have made schools a pretty safe place to be.

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However, schools can’t operate without teachers and bus drivers, and if people don’t do more to stop the virus, that’s where we’ll be.

Failure to widely adopt vaccinations and masking in a community is what is going to force schools to close. The omicron variant is going to rip through Maine just as it has ripped through everywhere else it has been, infecting so many people that lots of places, including schools, won’t have the manpower they need.

Those people — students, teachers and bus drivers among them — won’t be home because some policy tells them they have to quarantine, but because they’ll be too sick to work, and would put others in danger if they did so.

It’s not only schools. Maine’s two largest hospital systems report staff shortages are at an all-time high as a result of COVID infections. Those left at work, of course, are exhausted after months of treating patients, most of whom would have never needed their help if they’d gotten vaccinated.

The pandemic over the next few weeks is likely to look different than anything we’ve seen before. Cases are already at all-time highs, and all indications are that they will go higher, perhaps much higher.

We can lessen its impact by doing the things we know work. We can keep as many kids as possible in their regular routines as long as the rest of do what we can to keep the illness from overwhelming our schools.

So get the vaccine. Mask up. Limit crowds.

If not, schools will be forced to close, and much of the rest of our lives will get disrupted to. Whether we like it or not.

Portland Press Herald