Courtesy photo

Before being elected to the Maine Legislature in 2018, I was an educator in York County for 21 years. That was the most demanding and rewarding job I’ve ever had. However, I can hardly imagine the challenges of being an educator during this pandemic, and I applaud the work that our teachers have done and will do as we begin a new school year.

Parents across Maine also deserve a standing ovation. For the past four months, as this pandemic has kept schools shuttered, Maine parents have stepped up to the plate to support their students. This is no easy task. All of us have struggled to balance our health, our work and the education of our young ones. Fortunately, parents, students and teachers have remained flexible and responded effectively.

Now, as we get closer to September, we’re able to have a better picture of what the upcoming school year will hold. Earlier this month, Gov. Mills and Commissioner Pender Makin released new information on how our students will be able to have the critical educational support they deserve, while also keeping both our students and educators safe.

For the most part this guidance from the governor and the Department of Education, called the Framework for Returning to Classroom Instruction, consists of recommendations. This is meant to be a framework for reopening, not a mandate or set of requirements. Ultimately, the specific policies adopted by each district will be up to our school boards, superintendents, nurses and administrators working together to determine the best option for each community. Our state education leaders understand that this virus has impacted Maine communities in vastly different ways.

The impact that COVID-19 has had on Portland is different than its impact on Presque Isle. This plan recognizes that diversity within our state.

Kennebunk High School. Dan King photo

DOE will categorize counties as either red, yellow or green. Communities in the red category will be districts that have high levels of COVID-19, that may risk in-person instruction. Conversely, schools in the green category are in communities with a limited risk of transmission.

The county classifications will be advisory and updated every two weeks. As we know, even the virus’s effect on communities in York County has varied, so districts will not be bound to their county classification. Each district is working with their Collaborative Planning Teams to develop at least three separate planning models – fully in-person, hybrid or fully remote – in order to initially implement the model each district deems appropriate based on current health data.

There will, however, also be a set of core requirements to keep students and educators safe. These common sense practices include making sure that students stay at least three feet apart and ensuring that all students wash their hands frequently. Schools will also be asked to have students and teachers check their symptoms at home and notify school administrators if they start exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19. Students and educators will also be required to wear cloth face coverings. As we know, these face coverings can greatly reduce COVID-19 transmission, and this is a simple step that we can take to keep our communities free from this virus.

We are all hoping for safe, in-person reopening of our schools as soon as it is possible. We anxiously look at the daily data coming out of the Maine CDC, and most of us diligently do our personal best each day to make sure we are keeping the numbers declining: wearing masks, keeping our distance and continuing those new and strange habits we have gotten really good at over the last four months.

And my job? I voted to get back to Augusta immediately and do the work I was elected to do: address the need for school resources, childcare, loss of employment, the closing of businesses and other emergencies. I hope we are able to do so.

As a grandfather of public school children in three separate school districts in Maine, I am proud of how the Department of Education has created a state-wide framework for reopening our schools that offers detailed guidance and resources while honoring our long tradition of local control of our public schools. I am under no illusion that any of this will be easy. However, from the way we’ve worked together over the last four difficult months, I know that together we will do this.

Henry Ingwersen is serving his first term in the Maine House of Representatives, where he represents Arundel, Dayton and part of Lyman. A retired educator, he serves on the Legislature’s Education Committee.

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