Parents, teachers and school leaders reacted with surprise Friday to Maine’s release of a county classification system for the reopening of schools that allows for in-person instruction throughout the state.

Individual school districts have the final say on whether or not all students will return to classrooms, and those decisions have yet to be made. But some school staff and families said they don’t feel prepared for a full return and are worried about how schools will implement all the necessary safety precautions.

“I think the idea that Maine isn’t bad right now is true, but I don’t trust that will stay the same or that that’s something we can count on,” said Maire Trombley, a fourth-grade teacher at Scarborough’s Wentworth School.

“As a teacher I know how hard it is to change and to start something and then have to switch it. I feel like we’re going to put all this time, energy and professional development into one plan and then still end up having to do something else.”

Trombley was surprised to see Cumberland County, which has the highest rate of coronavirus infections in the state, given the same low-risk or “green” designation as the rest of Maine. “This gives schools permission to scramble to set up a green plan and then it could all change in a few weeks anyway,” she said.

While families and educators all want to be back in classrooms in-person, others shared similar concerns and said despite the release of the state’s recommendations, anxiety and uncertainty remain.

“I have to admit I was surprised and also concerned because I’m hoping people understand there are still safety requirements that have to be in place,” 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.

“Even in the green I think districts are not all there yet. There’s still some time and funding coming through to help, but some of these really important requirements are going to be difficult to put in place. It’s likely some districts will have a hybrid or even remote way of opening schools because they really have to have those requirements in place and functioning and have to be able to enforce them.”

If safety measures are not well-implemented, Leavitt said districts run the risk of not only jeopardizing the health and safety of teachers and students, but also of losing staff. “I’m really worried that if things are not safe we could be moving some of our educators from the profession,” Leavitt said. “We had a shortage already. I’m worried about that and what could transpire. We need to do all we can to provide support and keep them safe.”

Some school leaders chalked up the statewide green designation to Maine’s low coronavirus numbers. Maine has some of the lowest infection and death rates in the country, according to daily tracking and analysis by the New York Times, which lists only Vermont and Hawaii as having lower infection rates.

Peter Lancia, superintendent of the Westbrook School Department, said he was “pretty surprised” to see Cumberland County among the green areas, but he interpreted the statewide designation as a sign that Maine has done a good job responding to the pandemic.

“The state has followed the regulations and the requirements and that really is a testament to everyone’s efforts across the state – in education, in business, everyone,” Lancia said. He noted, however, that because Maine’s counties are so large, decisions in Westbrook and other school districts will have to be made based on local conditions.

The Westbrook School Department plans to release draft plans this weekend that, like many districts across the state, will include options for 100 percent distance learning, fully reopening schools and a hybrid model. While a final decision is likely weeks away, Lancia said any plan will be reviewed every two weeks and will be fluid enough to quickly respond to the situation on the ground.

For that reason, Lancia said he anticipates relying heavily on technology even during in-classroom instruction, so that teachers and students can quickly transition back to distance learning, if necessary.

“It’s still early to make a determination about which plan we will have in place,” Lancia said. “We are still a month away from school and, as we know, things can happen pretty quickly.”

Richard Colpitts, superintendent of the Oxford Hills School District in western Maine and president of the Maine School Superintendents Association, said he wasn’t terribly surprised by the statewide green designation given the case trends in Maine. But while that is “great news” for the state and schools, it is only one piece of the reopening puzzle.

“Green is good because it means that we were given advice that it is safe to meet in schools again as long we can meet conditions,” Colpitts said. “And now we have to go through our schools to see whether we can meet those conditions.”

That process is going be highly individualized and will depend not only on the physical school space but also on transportation logistics. The education department has yet to release guidance on transportation issues – such as how many students per bus with physical distancing – and Colpitts said that issue “could be enough to sway some districts to do something different.”

But school districts and boards also must navigate dramatically varied opinions on reopening among parents.

In his district, SAD 17, Colpitts said roughly one-third of parents responding to a survey had significant concerns about sending their kids back to schools while another third were agreeable as long as there were strict guidelines in place. The remaining third, meanwhile, didn’t believe guidelines such as required face coverings were necessary at all.

About 15 percent of parents indicated that they would prefer their child to continue learning by distance education, which SAD 17 will allow.

Krystal Brewer, the mother of three girls in the Gorham School District, said she is particularly worried about her third-grader with Down syndrome and what a full return to school would look like. “If she sits there for five days with a mask on, that’s going to be hard for little children or ones with disabilities,” Brewer said.

She believes the district will likely go with a hybrid learning scenario, but that also raises questions about who will help Hennessy, her third-grader, with remote learning on days she’s home and while her older sisters are doing their school work. “She hits the computer and she melts,” Brewer said. “I can’t get her to sit up and do it. It’s a mess for the whole household.”

Brewer also worries about her daughter’s social and emotional well-being, especially with so many changes. How will her daughter do speech therapy when her therapist has to wear a mask? “They’re so used to hugging, getting love and having their hands held,” Brewer said. “That’s a huge part of what helps them learn and they can’t have that. I’m really having problems. I’m worried for her.”

In Scarborough, Trombley said her district also has yet to make a decision on what reopening will look like, but she said it would be impossible to adhere to the social distancing guidelines set by the state and still bring all students back in person, so she is anticipating a hybrid model. She’s also feeling nervous about how schools will enforce mask wearing among students and other precautions like hand washing.

“Ideally, I think we have to teach from home to be safe,” Trombley said. “I don’t like teaching online. I don’t know how I would do classroom management. I don’t know how I would keep all the kids engaged who don’t have the supports at home or who have to be at daycare because their parents are working. There are tons of questions there, but there are places that have been doing that.”

Caroline Foster, president of the Portland Education Association, said many of the union’s members were surprised by the green designation and that while Maine’s COVID-19 situation is better than many states, there are still concerns about how to protect the health and safety of Portland staff, parents, students and the community.

“This is a really difficult situation because we know there are social, emotional, physical and academic risks no matter what the eventual decision, and even if we’d rather – in the ideal, pandemic-free world – be working with our students in person, health and safety have to come first,” Foster said in an email Friday. “None of this is easy.”

Portland Public Schools, the state’s largest district, is currently looking at three scenarios for reopening, all of which come with an option for students to continue learning remotely. A spokeswoman for the district said Friday that Superintendent Xavier Botana would not be commenting further on reopening plans before Tuesday’s school board meeting, where he plans to offer his recommendation to the board.

Foster said educators and specialists have been working all summer on the best way to teach students under all three scenarios. The district has been busy upgrading classrooms, work spaces and buildings to meet the department’s guidelines.

“At the same time, we know that many of our colleagues are high risk, care for those who are high risk, or need to make tough decisions around childcare,” Foster said. “And we know there’s still a lot of uncertainty, regardless of today’s designation.”


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