The state, rather than local school boards, will determine when Maine students can return to classrooms this fall, the Maine Department of Education said Thursday.

In a draft framework released Thursday evening, the department said it will make a determination on reopening schools in consultation with officials from the Maine Emergency Management Agency and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Maine schools closed in March to control the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and the decision was eventually made for them to remain closed through the end of the academic year.

Local officials will be responsible for many of the details of how schools reopen, such as schedules and classroom configurations to achieve physical distancing, the proposal said.

The plan will remain a draft “due to the unpredictable and constantly evolving nature of the COVID-19 situation,” said Pender Makin, the commissioner of education, and will be updated as necessary.

The plan that was released Thursday would require staff to wear face masks and encourage students to wear them as well. The reopening framework also includes provisions for remote learning and remote instructional days, Makin said.

It covers considerations for physical health and safety; social, emotional, behavioral and mental health; guidelines for academic programs and student learning; and a common foundation for remote learning.

In general, the document said schools will reopen when there’s a downward trajectory in COVID-19 cases, the local health care system is determined to have the capacity to treat those who catch the virus and the state has the capacity for widespread testing.

Several school superintendents who were contacted Thursday evening said they had not had a chance to read the state’s plan and declined to comment, but those who had an opportunity described it as complex and daunting. Those school officials said the majority of teachers, students and parents want to return to in-person learning and that their districts are committed to making the state plan work.

Heather Perry, superintendent of the Gorham School District, which educates about 2,800 students, said that the fall reopening plan her district presented to the school committee at its meeting Wednesday night is aligned with the state’s plan.

“We’ve been working along those lines for a while now. There were no surprises,” Perry said. “We can do it, but there is going to be a cost.”

Perry described the state plan as “very complex,” but achievable. She said Gorham schools are ready to return to distance learning if conditions worsen, though she believes that the majority of the school community would prefer a return to the in-person classroom model.

“I think parents are looking for a way to get their students back into school, even if it’s on a partial basis,” Perry said.

Regional School Unit 5, which is based in Freeport, educates about 2,000 students from the towns of Durham, Pownal and Freeport. Superintendent Becky Foley said getting students back in school in the fall is going to require an all-out effort.

“I believe it’s achievable, but it is going to require our administrative team to be completely focused on developing a reopening plan this summer. We have two and half months to get ready,” Foley said. “It’s a bit daunting, but we are fully committed to getting our students back to the classroom in the fall. I do think that our staff, students and parents want to do our best to try and get back.”

Foley was struck by the state plan’s level of detail. She said there will be a cost associated with compliance, especially with providing personal protective equipment and required cleaning regimens. In addition to the face mask guidelines, each school is being asked to designate a room or area as an isolation room should a student or staffer begin to exhibit COVID-19 symptoms.

Recommendations run the gamut. For instance, under physical health and safety, state officials recommend the thorough cleaning of the schools and throwing out any items – such as rugs, furniture and toys – that can’t be cleaned daily.

Floors should be marked at 6-foot intervals for physical distancing in areas where students are likely to line up, such as at classroom doors, bathrooms and sinks, the guidelines say. In addition, ventilation systems should be checked and adjusted to bring in as much outside air as possible, the draft report said.

School officials should consider a “virtual open house” for families to learn about the new rules and safety guidelines, the department framework suggests, as well as kid-friendly videos on putting on face masks, maintaining social distancing and other safety guidelines.

Staff and students should conduct a daily “self-check” for monitoring health, the report said, so individuals can run through a check-list of symptoms that might suggest someone has contracted the disease and should stay home.

Schools should take into account staff and student mental health issues after long periods of isolation, and prepare everyone for a return to more social activities.

“Communicate plans, schedules, and updates to staff, families, and community – there’s no such thing as too much communication when it comes to helping people feel safe,” the report said.

The report also said that teachers should take part in professional development programs over the summer to get ready for a mix of in-person and remote learning. In addition, schools should consider flexible class groupings and multi-age classrooms for efficient use of resources, the state framework suggests.

The report also suggests schools adopt remote learning plans with daily schedules and plans to certify attendance.

Finally, the report suggests local officials take into account other considerations, such as adult education, operating child nutrition programs, and health and safety considerations for school buses, as they reopen.

“We continue to be humbled by the resilience and innovation shown by educators, students and families across Maine during this emergency period,” Makin said.

 

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