Maine schools continued to respond to the spread of coronavirus Thursday by canceling field trips and events and preparing plans for remote learning, a move that at least one public high school has already decided to implement.

Portland’s Baxter Academy for Technology and Science announced Thursday it would close school until further notice starting Friday and make plans to transition to remote learning by Monday.

The charter school, which is not part of Portland Public Schools, appears to be the first public K-12 school in Maine to transition to distance learning because of the outbreak.

“Our school brings students from over 60 towns into downtown Portland,” said Baxter Academy Executive Director Kelli Pryor in an email. “We understand that this creates opportunity for the COVID-19 virus to spread. This week we have experienced a high level of absences both among students and faculty. At this point, we do not have enough staff in the building to safely operate the school.

“We are also aware of how swiftly other institutions, such as colleges, are moving to safeguard students and to try and prevent a spike in COVID-19 cases that would overwhelm local medical resources.”

The transition to distance learning is something several Maine school districts have been planning for as the spread of coronavirus, deemed a pandemic by the World Health Organization on Wednesday, has intensified. More than 125,000 cases have been confirmed worldwide and more than 4,600 have died.

Prior to the news that Baxter would close, Maine Department of Education spokeswoman Kelli Deveaux said the department was not aware of any K-12 schools closing. The state confirmed its first case in a woman in Androscoggin County on Thursday.

Dozens of districts in other states impacted by the outbreak have closed, though Gov. Janet Mills said she is not recommending school closures. The state of Ohio, which has five confirmed cases, announced Thursday that all public, community and K-12 schools would close until April 3.

A mass school closure would be unprecedented in Maine. Deveaux said Thursday that any decisions about closures would be made by superintendents with consultation from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Closures could also present challenges to Maine families including childcare, access to food that many students normally get at school and barriers to distance learning like a lack of internet at home.

The Maine Department of Education received a waiver from the federal government Wednesday allowing it to continue to receive reimbursement for school meals offered remotely for schools with high numbers of low-income students. The department is also working on ways to enable all school districts to provide meals in the event of a closure.

“Schools still remain the hub of our communities,” Deveaux said. “For many students it really is the place where their needs are met, including meals. We also recognize our communities rely on our schools and if suddenly children were home that creates significant pressure on families to find childcare.”

Pryor said Baxter has pioneered snow day learning and will be looking at that as an example of how remote school might work. Students and teachers will rely on Google classroom and other tools and students will be expected to virtually attend their regular class schedule.

Other school districts Thursday said they were following Mills’ recommendation to postpone all large, indoor gatherings of 250 or more people for the next 30 days.

Portland Public Schools cancelled all field trips and gatherings that would bring the public into schools, including volunteers, and has postponed or cancelled all inter-district activities, including sports, for the time being, Superintendent Xavier Botana said in a letter to the community.

The district is also planning for the possibility of school closures by preparing plans to provide students with learning materials at home and ways to provide access to technology and internet in homes that don’t have it.

Other districts in Yarmouth, York and elsewhere announced plans to modify their schedules and events and prepare for possible closures.

Andrew Dolloff, superintendent of schools in the Yarmouth School Department, said in a letter the district is cancelling all field trips, suspending student performances and competitions until further notice and postponing events that draw significant crowds.

The York School Department cancelled school for one day, Friday, so staff can report to schools and plan for remote learning in the event of an extended school closure, said Superintendent Lou Goscinski in a letter to families.

On Wednesday Bowdoin College and the University of Maine System asked students to not return from school break and announced plans to transition to remote learning later this month.

The Maine Community College System said Thursday it would extend students’ spring breaks, which are happening at different times this month across the system’s seven campuses, in order to better prepare for new methods of instruction if the need arises.

“We aren’t yet in a position where we must move classes to an alternative form of learning, but we must be prepared to do so if it becomes necessary,” system President David Daigler said in a news release.

The Maine College of Art in Portland also announced it would extend spring break for an additional two weeks with classes currently scheduled to resume March 30, though staff will maintain a regular work schedule.

 

 

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