BRUNSWICK — School officials in Brunswick, Bath, Topsham and Freeport are developing multiple back-to-school scenarios for the fall, but with daily changes in public health, some districts likely won’t have a concrete plan before it’s time for students to start sharpening pencils. 

Schools closed in March for what officials initially hoped would be just a matter of weeks in an effort to stop the spread of coronavirus, but quickly realized that it would be a much more prolonged effort. The schools never reopened their doors and students and teachers adapted to online learning plans. Now, they must decide how to move forward in the fall. 

Henry Mears of Brunswick, a second-grader at Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School, works on a remote learning assignment in March. Photo courtesy of Bridie Mears

“This is going to be one of the most important things in a number of years that we’re going to have to do, figuring out how to safely reopen the schools in our communities,” said Shawn Chabot, superintendent of Maine School Administrative District 75. 

Superintendents in Brunswick and Regional School Unit 5, which includes Freeport, Pownal and Durham, have both said that it is unlikely there will be a decision before August, though they will aim for as soon as possible. 

MSAD 75, on the other hand, intends to announce a draft plan July 23. MSAD 75 serves Topsham, Harpswell, Bowdoin and Bowdoinham. 

With school expected to begin August 31, “We don’t have a lot of time,” Phillip Potenziano, Brunswick superintendent, said. 

Departments are drafting multiple plans while they await more  guidance from the Maine Department of Education and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Brunswick, RSU 5, MSAD 75 and RSU 1 (Bath, Phippsburg, Arrowsic and Woolwich) have all distributed surveys to parents with questions surrounding three possible alternatives: a complete return to in-person instruction, a hybrid between classroom and remote learning, or a remote-only model. 

Brunswick is accepting responses until July 20, while the other three districts’ surveys are already closed.

Becky Foley, superintendent of RSU 5, is still combing through the results of the parent survey, but said she is already aware that roughly 10% of the district’s 2,000 students will likely not be returning to the school in the fall if there is not a coronavirus vaccine.

Out of 943 responses, Foley said that 72% of parents said they could accommodate a hybrid model and about 58% said they may be able to help with transportation.

She also said it was clear that most parents — 75% — are really concerned about the social and emotional impact of the pandemic and that that will need to be a focus next year no matter which plan they go with.

Foley said she will be reviewing hundreds of comments in the coming days and hopes to have the results of the survey online next week.

According to results of the MSAD 75 survey, parents want to send their children back to school in the fall, but have serious concerns around each of the three proposed plans. 

Most parents, roughly 90%, said they likely plan to send their children to school for in-person learning, but more than one-third of them have concerns about a potential lack of childcare. 

Nearly half of the parents said they worried about large gatherings in the schools and classrooms if students return to school without restrictions. 

With the blend of in-person and remote learning, 65% of parents worried about their children’s socialization, while almost 60% worried about them falling behind academically. 

Those concerns jumped to 80% and 70%, respectively, for a remote-only school year, and 65% of parents also said the plan raised questions about students’ mental and emotional wellbeing. 

“Everybody is just trying to do their very best to get students back to in person learning to the fullest extent possible while also keeping our students, staff and community safe,” Chabot said. “Trying to balance those two things is really challenging, and they seem like they kind of contradict each other. Each district is trying to navigate that.” 

Joel Siano shares those concerns. His two daughters attend Brunswick schools — his oldest, a rising sixth grader, will be starting at Brunswick Junior High School and his younger daughter, soon to be in second grade, will attend the new Kate Furbish Elementary School. 

In an ideal world, he would love for his girls to go back to school in the fall. 

As a taxpayer, he wants to see the new $20 million school used, his daughters want to see their friends, and he thinks some normalcy would be beneficial after several months of upheaval. But he also understands there are serious health concerns and that enforcing protective measures is easier said than done  

“We’re expecting kids to social distance, and we can’t even get every adult to do that,” he said, adding that parents should be leading by example. 

While he is thankful for the opportunity to provide input (“I’ve probably done about six surveys since March,” he said) he said he wishes Brunswick were further along in the process and is worried that parent’s work schedules aren’t being weighed as a serious enough concern.

Both he and his wife work full time, and while they have some flexibility in their scheduling, it is still one of their biggest concerns and largest hurdles in planning for the upcoming school year. 

If they do go back to school in August, Siano said he hopes they can do it safely, but allow kids to still eat in the cafeteria and go to their “specials” like art, gym and music, so “they can interact with each other in a normal way instead of feeling like they’re zoo animals.”

In his household, the transition to remote learning went relatively smoothly, but much of the work was repetitive, more “busy work,” he said. If Brunswick has to move online next year, he said for his kids’ sake, he hopes there’s more face to face interaction on video conferencing sites like Zoom. 

Potenziano said there is no easy solution, and there will be no one-size fits all, but that they are willing to work with people.  

“It is our intention to bring all students back in the fall for in-person instruction,” he said in a letter to the community, but “we also know that local and health conditions” may prevent that from happening.

Nevertheless, the department is developing additional protocols to promote wellness through social distancing, purchasing additional health and safety supplies and equipment and receiving transportation options to ensure students can get to and from school safely, he said. 

There are also other factors to consider, like how to promote the social and emotional well being of students from a distance, how to best serve students with disabilities who need special services and how to move forward with sports and extracurriculars. The schools also need to determine how feasible remote learning may be for everyone, including those who might not have reliable access to the internet and those who have parents who both need to work. 

“These are realistic scenarios which we must prepare for,” Potenziano wrote.

“2019-20 was a very challenging year and 2020-21 will likely be challenging, too,” he said. “But together I believe we can weather the storm and come out stronger on the other side.” 

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