Administrators at SAD 51 expected a full return to school this fall, but as the coronavirus pandemic rages on that goal is far from certain. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

CUMBERLAND — School Administrative District 51 is weighing options for resuming classes this fall.

The state of the coronavirus pandemic by that point, and word from state officials, could determine which direction the Cumberland-North Yarmouth district takes.

“It’s important that we continue to recognize that we’re dealing with something that we’ve never dealt with before; we don’t have a playbook for this,” School Board Chairwoman Tyler McGinley said, adding administrators are “doing everything they possibly can to try and wrap their heads around all the potential hypothetical situations that are ahead of us.”

The Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention reports as of July 8, North Yarmouth had eight cases of a population of 3,975, Cumberland Center had 30 of a population of 6,595, and Cumberland Foreside had between one and five cases among a population of 1,569. Soon after SAD 51 closed its schools in March, the district reported three cases at the Mabel I. Wilson elementary school: one student and two staff.

SAD 51’s pandemic response document, posted at bit.ly/DPRP2020, states that it presents “a flexible re-entry plan that will govern how school and educational programming will operate based upon the external conditions that exist across the state and county. This plan is purposefully ‘fluid’ and provides specific guidance as to how the school system will operate based on these external conditions.”

The state’s “Framework for Returning to Classroom Instruction,” posted at maine.gov/doe/covid-19/reintegrate, notes that the Maine Department of Education will help school districts decide when it’s safe to go back to learning in person. Factors include a “downward trajectory” of flu-like illnesses, COVID-like cases and newly-hospitalized patients; the state’s ability to conduct a “robust testing program”; and the capacity hospitals have to “treat all patients without crisis care.”

With guidance from the CDC and the Education Department, SAD 51 has divided its plan into three levels. One would provide for 100% virtual learning, and be implemented if conditions required schools to remain closed this fall, and “could apply to a delay to the beginning of the school year and/or intermittent closure of school buildings for periods of time as needed,” according to the document.

The second level would be a hybrid of in-school and virtual learning, with students in classes two days a week – Monday-Tuesday, or Wednesday-Thursday – and learning virtually the other three. Friday would be devoted to staff planning or extra student support.

The staggered schedule would mean about half the students would be in a school at a given time to provide sufficient social distancing.

Playgrounds would remain closed, hand sanitizing stations would be increased, and the public would not be permitted in schools until Nov. 29, except for school-based or recreational department programming. All staff and students, except for pre-kindergarden to first grade pupils, could be required to wear masks, according to Superintendent Jeff Porter.

Normally more than 50 children could be on a bus at one time, but SAD 51 is looking at a cap of 24 to provide for social distancing, and is reviewing bus routes accordingly, Porter said. In one of two surveys, the district has asked parents whether they will bring their children to school instead of putting them on the bus.

The other survey has asked whether parents plan to keep their children home for continued remote learning, to give the district a better idea of potential in-school enrollment.

SAD 51 anticipates enrollment this fall to be 2,175 students. Normal class sizes can range from 18 to 25, with higher numbers in the more advanced grades, so the hybrid model would see half those numbers in the classroom.

The third level would be a closer return to normal, with all students back in class together again. Still, some extra safety measures would be in place, such as the public ban until Nov. 29. Frequent hand washing would be a requirement, and no field trips, student exchanges or school assemblies would be allowed for the entire school year.

The state could direct each school district on which of the three levels to pursue, based on Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention recommendations, Porter said. He expects that Cumberland County districts could be advised to follow the hybrid model.

If a case of COVID-19 emerges in a classroom this fall, the school district could send students and teachers from that classroom, or the wing around that room, home for a few days, Porter said. In a more dire circumstance, a “dramatic drop in student attendance across the board” could shut the district down, he said.

A more general survey, which concluded last month, drew about 1,200 responses, representing almost 95% of parents, Porter said. Many questions related to the three levels.

Relating to the reliability of home internet and connectivity if the full remote learning option were implemented, 82% of parents weren’t concerned, while 18% had some or a substantial concern. The ability to support a child academically was more mixed: 27% weren’t concerned, 36% had some concern, and 37% had substantial concerns. Only 8% weren’t concerned about their child’s social-emotional well-being, while 37% had some concern, and 55% had substantial concern.

Madison Dalton, a rising junior at Greely High, said she would like a complete return to school if it’s considered safe enough.

“Losing the structure of a schedule with classes and being in person/receiving hands on learning was very difficult at first, and was a challenge through the end of the year,” she said. “I don’t think I or many students could do an entire year completely online. Some people did very well, others suffered and I just found it extremely difficult to find motivation, give myself structure, and still learn what I needed to learn.”

Dalton said she also supports the in-person/online hybrid model, “because it satisfies the need for a bit of structure and in person learning, as well as giving more safety to those at higher risk that want to learn in person.”

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