A global pandemic is about to force Maine’s K-12 schools to attempt something they’ve been reluctant to try since the World Wide Web became publicly available nearly three decades ago: a full transition to remote learning.

Few Maine schools, if any, have even run drills to see what problems might emerge in a fully remote learning environment. But starting Monday, they will go all-in on virtual classrooms as a means to help curtail the spread of coronavirus and protect their most vulnerable staff and faculty.

With the decision comes a barrage of questions: How will working parents accommodate their children being home all day? What about families that rely on subsidized school meals to feed their kids? Can an elementary school student really learn anything sitting for hours in front of a computer?

“We’re definitely going to find out,” said Berwick resident Jeff Tash, whose 11-year-old son is a fifth-grader at Eric L. Knowlton School in Berwick.

Tash, like many parents of school-age children in Maine, was informed late Friday that the school’s campus would be closed to students for at least two weeks starting Monday and that parents would be notified soon about the school’s plans to implement remote learning curricula on an unprecedented scale.

Some schools in Maine waited until Saturday, or even Sunday, to let parents know about an imminent change that likely would require a complete reordering of their family members’ lives.

“I don’t know how it’s going to work,” Tash said. “The teachers are meeting tomorrow at school, I think, to hash some of this stuff out and figure out how it’s all going to work. I don’t think anybody really knows.”

Children and healthy adults have tended not to suffer severe illness or death from the coronavirus, but older adults and those with respiratory problems or immune system deficiencies are considered to be at high risk. The fear is that a school full of children could easily spread the disease to those high-risk individuals.

In Biddeford, for example, at least 100 of the K-12 schools’ roughly 500 staff and faculty members are considered to be at risk, Biddeford Superintendent of Schools Jeremy Ray said in a video posted on Facebook Saturday.

“Over 20 percent of our staff members fall into that vulnerable category – that’s very important,” Ray said. “As we think about social distancing and the fact that Maine is one of the oldest states in the nation, as we think about this as a community challenge, I really found that it was difficult to hold school (on campus).”

Kirk Niese, a science teacher at Mt. Ararat Middle School in Topsham, said that under the circumstances, he agrees with the school’s decision to close its campus to students at least through March 27 and then reassess the situation. By Sunday afternoon, many K-12 schools in southern Maine had announced a similar policy.

Niese said teachers and students generally are equipped with the needed technology, thanks to a statewide program known as the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, and that most educators in Maine have required their students in recent years to have a familiarity with remote learning tools such as Google Classroom.

The biggest challenge, he said, will be faced by parents who work jobs that don’t allow them to stay home all day and supervise their younger children while they participate in remote learning.

“Obviously if you’re in manufacturing, you can’t work from home,” he said. “If you’re in the food service (industry), you can’t work from home.”

A bitter irony of the coronavirus situation is that older relatives and neighbors often are the go-to caretakers for children of working parents, Niese said, but those people are also at the greatest risk of serious health effects from coronavirus, so they are largely being taken out of the equation.

Eighteen-year-old Camden resident Pearl Benjamin, a senior at Watershed School in Camden, said she and a group of friends have come up with a possible solution that they hope will spread quickly as a model for high school students in other communities.

The students have created a Facebook group called Five Towns Babysitting Task Force and already have recruited about a dozen students to participate who Benjamin said are all experienced babysitters.

The idea is that a member of the task force would go in the morning to the home of a working family with younger children and would keep an eye on them all day while engaging in their own remote learning curriculum.

“Basically, we would just be there as a resource to make sure the kids are safe,” Benjamin said. The group planned to begin accepting requests from parents through its Facebook page Sunday night.

Tash, the Berwick parent, also has been thinking of ways to help out during the school campus closures. A biologist with a flexible work schedule, Tash said he would like to form some sort of group to take kids on nature walks and possibly teach them some science while they take a break from the virtual classroom.

Taking the kids outdoors would be safer than trying to hold gatherings in someone’s home, which public health officials are not recommending, he said.

“I kind of look at it as an opportunity,” Tash said.

Another concern held by many parents and teachers is how children who rely on free or low-cost school breakfasts and lunches will be able to access those meals while schools are closed.

Some school districts have been talking about setting up drive-thru stations where parents could pick up bagged meals, or having school buses deliver the meals to students’ neighborhoods. But as of Sunday afternoon, no schools appeared to have announced their plans for meal access or delivery.

However, there were early signs that community organizations were preparing to step up to meet the needs of low-income families.

Yarmouth Community Services issued a statement Sunday afternoon that beginning Monday it would offer free breakfast and lunch daily to residents with children ages 2 through 18 while school campuses remain closed. It said bagged meals can be picked up between 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Monday through Friday at Yarmouth Pointe Apartment Homes, 1 Juniper Drive, in the playground area.

Friday’s bags will include meals for Friday, Saturday and Sunday, it said.

Ken Chutchian, a high school history, civics and economics teacher in the RSU 16 Public School District, which serves Poland, Minot and Mechanic Falls, said that as much as he will miss engaging directly with students on campus during the closure period, he doesn’t think teachers will have much difficulty adjusting to virtual instruction.

However, Chutchian said he is concerned about the district’s ability to help resolve students’ technical problems remotely if something goes wrong with their software, hardware or internet connectivity.

He noted that RSU 16 has never conducted a trial run for 100 percent remote learning, and that there are liable to be kinks that will need to be worked out.

“We do have the infrastructure,” he said. “How smooth it will go? What the bumps are? We’re going to learn as we go.”


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