Amanda Cooper, an eighth-grade English and social studies teacher at Gorham Middle School, says she’s longing for a return to in-classroom learning. She says the school’s cafeteria, above, now has 75 desks all spaced 6 feet apart. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Seeing people at the grocery store or hardware store failing to wear masks makes Krystal Ash-Cuthbert nervous. The fifth-grade teacher at Scarborough’s Wentworth School wonders whether parents will make their children wear masks if school resumes in-person in the fall.

She worries about the children who go home to grandparents and whether they will be bringing the coronavirus to them. And she thinks about colleagues who are older or have health concerns and who are questioning what will happen if they don’t feel safe returning to school buildings.

“They are genuinely worried,” said Ash-Cuthbert, who also serves as president of the Scarborough Education Association. “That’s not including asthmatics and several members of the staff who have just gone through cancer treatments. They find themselves in a tough position. They want to be back with their kids but not at the sacrifice of their own life.”

Across Maine and the United States, teachers are eager to be back in the classroom this fall but are feeling nervous about the possibility of reopening too soon and questioning how to do so safely.

While the start of school in Maine is still several weeks away for most districts, the debate over reopening schools has accelerated nationwide after President Trump recently called for all schools to fully reopen in the fall and threatened to pull federal funding for those that don’t.

Some other countries that have reopened schools have avoided seeing a surge in cases, though many had successfully lowered their infection rates first. And while children are at lower risk of becoming seriously ill from the coronavirus, questions remain about what reopening schools could do for the spread among older teens and adults.

Some cities around the U.S., including Los Angeles, San Diego and Houston, announced last week that schools would start fall classes online only, at least initially. While those cities are in states that have seen surging case numbers, Maine’s daily average of new cases has been on the decline.

Dawna Cyr, a government and women’s history teacher at Bonny Eagle High School in Standish, poses for a portrait outside the school on Wednesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“I think people are very happy about (Maine’s low numbers), but I think they’re still not letting their guard down because they know it can change so quickly,” said Dawna Cyr, a teacher at Bonny Eagle High School in Standish and president of the Saco Valley Teachers’ Association.

Some educators in Maine said they are worried about whether an in-person return will pose health risks, especially for those who are older or have underlying conditions, and how schools will accommodate staff who are unable to return in-person or end up contracting the virus.

Teachers who are also parents fear their schedules won’t align with those of their children, especially if they are in different school districts.

And everyone is worried about what is best for students and how to implement safety precautions including mask wearing, which has become a hotly debated topic outside of schools and which some teachers anticipate will carry over into the classroom.

“Students need to be back learning in person, but it needs to be safe, too,” said Grace Leavitt, president of the Maine Education Association, which represents 24,000 educators statewide, including teachers, support staff, pre-service teachers and retired educators.

“I think there’s a lot of concern about being sure safety measures are in place and being followed, and the needs are there in terms of things like ventilation, how things will be scheduled and what accommodations can be made for staff that need them,” she said. “It’s concerning to many. I think there are varying levels of worry about how this is going to work.”

The National Education Association is working with the Maine association and other affiliates to survey teachers on their feelings about returning in the fall. The Maine Department of Education is also surveying teachers and on Friday released updated guidance on how districts can make decisions about the return to school.

The guidance directs schools to prepare for three scenarios for the fall return: in-person, remote and a hybrid scenario that would be a mix of remote and in-person learning.

A hybrid scenario could be used if physical distancing requirements remain in place and schools need to limit the number of people in buildings. That could mean small groups of students take turns spending time in-person in schools or that only certain groups return in-person.

Embarking on her 20th year of teaching, Amanda Cooper looks at all of the furniture that was moved out of her and other teachers’ classrooms for cleaning and to make more space for social distancing at Gorham Middle School last week. She says educators will become front-line workers if they return to the classroom. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

But many details must still be addressed at the local level, such as whether teachers will need separate lesson plans for in-classroom and at-home instruction or how the hybrid approach might vary by grade level.

Department of Education Commissioner Pender Makin said because virus conditions vary across the state, she is anticipating a mix of districts choosing different models.

“What we’re hearing so far is that most teachers are planning to go back in the fall,” Makin said. “Most are very concerned about their own health and exposure to COVID and most teachers are even more concerned about the health of the children and students they serve.

“When I hear teachers are feeling nervous or afraid or concerned, it’s completely understandable. We are aware of that and doing everything within our power to provide support and guidance.”

In Portland Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, a survey last month found 60 percent of instructional staff said they would return to work on-site this fall if public health officials indicated it would be safe to do so. Thirty-two percent were undecided, 6 percent were not comfortable returning and 2 percent said they would be unable to return and planned to ask for an accommodation.

Among non-instructional staff, 66 percent said they were comfortable returning if public health officials deemed it safe, 29 percent were unsure, 3 percent were not comfortable and 2 percent said they would be unable and planned to request an accommodation.

About 800 of the district’s 1,300 employees participated in the survey.

Portland Superintendent Xavier Botana said the district has set up a process for staff with health concerns to request accommodations and will work with them once a clearer picture emerges of what a return looks like.

“We will be digging deeper to find out what folks’ concerns are,” Botana said. “The concerns I’ve heard about broadly are whether the virus is sufficiently under control to warrant having kids back in person and then if they are back in person, how do we maintain proper social distancing and make sure we’re meeting all the other requirements.”

Penny Christie, a seventh-grade math teacher at Sanford Junior High School Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

In the Sanford School Department, Penny Christie, a seventh-grade teacher at Sanford Junior High School, said she is anxious to return to school but wants to make sure it is done safely. “I’m 51 years old and I have asthma,” Christie said. “I’m not trying to get sick.”

She said she is less concerned about catching the virus from students than she is in a staff meeting or contact with co-workers. While mask-wearing could be difficult, especially for the youngest students, Christie said enforcing other rules like hand-washing and using sanitizer would work. And she feels strongly about bringing students back, even if it were just four days per week.

“The divide that is already there anyway is just going to widen because the kids that don’t have anyone to help with their homework, now they’re not going to have anyone help with their schoolwork,” Christie said. “And parents aren’t teachers. Even though some people think we don’t do much, it is a skill set.”

Amanda Cooper poses for a portrait outside Gorham Middle School last week. Cooper is a social studies and English teacher going on her 20th year of teaching. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Amanda Cooper, an eighth-grade English and social studies teacher at Gorham Middle School, said she too is desperate for an in-person return to school but believes a hybrid model may be more feasible.

“I do worry that we could be in a constant yo-yo mode over the next year where we’re doing some face-to-face and then we have some cases and have to shut down,” said Cooper, who is also president of the Gorham Teachers Association.

She said classrooms will need to put in place many of the same precautions as health care facilities while teachers also work to adjust their teaching styles. And she worries about the mental health of her colleagues.

“In addition to having to change up so many of the things you know how to do – I have elementary teachers who didn’t teach with a computer and they’re still teaching the alphabet but now they also have to teach that child how to use a computer, plus the alphabet – there’s the stress of being front-line workers, which is what America’s educators will become if we go back,” Cooper said.

In Scarborough, bus driver Tamara Murray also worries about her colleagues. At 53, she said she is one of the youngest drivers in the district. Most are older or semiretired and fall in the age bracket at highest risk for the virus.

Social distancing on the school bus would require Murray to transport fewer students than normal per bus run, raising the question of whether more bus drivers would be needed. She worries about bringing the virus to her 84-year-old mother-in-law, whom she frequently cares for.

“What’s going to happen when one of us gets sick or has to quarantine when a kid tests positive on our bus?” Murray said. “Does that mean all the kids on the bus have to go into quarantine? I worry, do I have to burn all my sick time? It gets bigger and bigger. The more we start to talk about these things, the more questions it raises. It gets scary.”

There are no easy solutions to any of the concerns about the return to school, but Makin said the department is working to come up with creative solutions. An older teacher who doesn’t feel comfortable returning in-person to the classroom could be paired up with a healthy first-year teacher who could be in-person, for example.

Buxton-based SAD 6 is one of the state’s largest school districts. Cyr, the teachers’ union president there, said the district’s administration has been working with the union to gather teacher feedback, but with so many unknowns about where Maine will be with the outbreak this fall, it’s hard to plan.

“They’re scared,” Cyr said of teachers and professional staff. “They’re scared of the unknown. They’re worried about contracting COVID. What’s going to happen? I think they have so many questions that nobody has the answers to right now.”

A survey conducted by the union generated more than six pages of questions about medical issues, what will happen if a substitute teacher is needed, whether teachers will have to plan for both remote and in-person learning and what the expectations will be for students.

Stephanie Melaugh, a sixth-grade science teacher at Bonny Eagle Middle School, said she does not believe it is currently safe to go back to school and that schools, especially in southern Maine, should consider hybrid or remote learning for the fall.

She said she is skeptical as to whether students will adhere to social distancing and the need to wear masks, especially among young children and those with special needs. “How well can we do that? We’ve never had to say to kids, ‘No, you’re standing too close together,'” she said.

For teachers who are also parents, there is concern about whether they will be able to coordinate schedules with their children, especially those who attend school in a different district. Teachers could have to be in their classroom daily while also juggling their child’s hybrid schedule from another school district, in which the student is in the classroom only two days per week.

“It’s very stressful right now because everything is up in the air,” says Rose Walker, an educational technician at Farwell Elementary School in Lewiston who has young children of her own: Olivia, 4, and 6-year-old Daisy. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“It’s very stressful right now because everything is up in the air,” said Rose Walker, an educational technician at Farwell Elementary School in Lewiston who is also the mother of a 4-year-old and 6-year-old. “Work is very uncertain and whether my kids are going back to school part time or on an alternate schedule, that could mean I’m unable to work unless districts can accommodate those folks.”

Walker said thinking about the fall causes her daily stress. She does not know if she will need child care for her daughters and if she’ll be able to find it.

She said she believes a hybrid model is probably the most feasible for schools, though each scenario comes with its own concerns. Keeping students at home would hurt their social and emotional learning, but bringing them back to school with so many changes in place could do the same thing.

“If we’re keeping everybody separate, they’re not getting that social emotional learning,” Walker said. “They’re not getting the social aspect of it. I think it’s just really hard to meet the expectations that health officials have put forth.”

Like Walker, Cooper, the Gorham teacher, has two middle school sons who attend school in a different district. Because of their ages – the boys will be in seventh and eighth grades – she said she and her husband, who is also a teacher, wouldn’t need child care, but that is not the case for many colleagues with younger children.

“Child care is an issue in Maine anyway, let alone intermittent child care where you only need it two days per week,” Cooper said. “That’s really hard to find and it’s a significant concern for my peers.”

The department is encouraging school districts to work together regionally to minimize scheduling conflicts both for teachers who are parents and for all working parents, Makin said.

“I wish I could promise but I can’t promise there will be a simple solution or this will be easy for people,” she said. “It’s going to be a challenge and we’re all in it together.”

The coronavirus and how to respond has become a hot-button political issue in states around the country, and some teachers worry that will spill over into schools, particularly when it comes to mask-wearing.

The guidelines released Friday require masks or face coverings for virtually all students and staff, along with other health and safety requirements schools must meet in order to open in-person.

“How hard will it be? It’s going to be extraordinarily difficult,” Makin said. “Schools are used to doing incredibly difficult work and this is pushing everyone’s limits.”

Masks highlight one of the many ways teachers will have to adjust their teaching styles. In addition to removing furniture and toys, rearranging classrooms for social distancing and limiting their movement and physical interaction with students, teachers will have to compromise a key way they communicate: facial expressions.

“One of the most important things is developing positive relationships with kids,” said Melaugh, at Bonny Eagle Middle School. “That’s tough when they can’t see the lower half of my face when I smile with encouragement, when I grin, when I use a facial expression to communicate maybe that behavior needs to stop.”

In Scarborough, Murray said her job as a bus driver means she will be in charge of setting the tone for the day for students.

“What happens when we have those kids who are growing up in those households who think a mask is ridiculous?” she asked. “Is that something else I need to deal with?”

It’s one of a myriad of questions she’s been asking. What will happen if a student on the bus contracts the coronavirus? How will she keep students socially distanced on the ride to school?

“I don’t know if we’ll ever have all the answers until we actually are in the midst of living the problem,” Murray said. “It’s hard to plan for something we’ve never planned for before.”

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