How, when – and even if – Maine schools should reopen in the fall has been the set of policy questions that have produced much anxiety during this summer of COVID-19.

On Friday, Gov. Janet Mills provided much needed guidance to school officials, and more importantly, a commitment of state funds to support the changes that need to be made.

It’s not a one-size-fits-all plan, and recognizes that risk levels are different in different parts of the state. It links decisions on how schools operate to scientific metrics including growth in new cases and percentage of test results that come back positive. And it spells out the public health rules that need to be followed any time students and staff are interacting in person.

Maine is in the position to make this happen because of the success we have had slowing the spread of the coronavirus. But with new cases of the disease exploding nationwide, we need to be very careful about how students are sent back to school and have fallback plans so education can continue remotely if there is an outbreak.

The good news is that children have lower rates of infection than adults, and schools have not been common sites of community spread. But countries in Europe and Asia that have opened their schools have had a variety of results, and there are lessons we can learn from both.

The best part of the Mills administration’s plan is it’s flexibility. Risk levels in the state’s 16 counties would be coded by public health officials as red, yellow or green.

A red label indicates that there is a high risk of community spread. The state advises schools in red counties to use distance learning. A yellow grade indicates an elevated risk, and the state advises hybrid education models where students would limit in-person learning. And a green label tells schools that they can reopen to regular instruction if the schools can follow state guidelines on symptom screening, hygiene, physical distancing and mask wearing.

It’s not a perfect fit. Since education is not delivered on a county level in Maine, school districts are going to need even more flexibility than this plan would suggest. For instance, community spread in Portland, South Portland and Westbrook could give Cumberland County a red rating, but that would not address the real danger in Cumberland County towns like Harpswell or Harrison. The guidelines make clear that these ratings are advisory only, and the final decision of how to open will be the decision of local school administrators.

No matter how they reopen, schools will have to do things to make sure that students and staff are as safe as possible. The framework lays out in detail public health standards for hand-washing, distance requirements and protective gear including masks and face shields. All of this will cost money to districts.

Mills has committed $165 million, which sounds like a lot of money, but is only half of what Education Commissioner Pender Makin estimated the state’s schools would need.

As long as this is intended to get the process started and not the final budget, this is a solid plan.

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