BATH — Regional School Unit 1, which serves Bath, Phippsburg, Arrowsic and Woolwich, approved its proposed reopening plan Monday, but whether students go back to the classroom full-time depends on a student’s grade level.

RSU 1 Superintendent Patrick Manuel and Assistant Superintendent Katie Joseph announced during a district board meeting Monday that pre-kindergarten through fifth grade students will return to school full-time after switching to distance learning in March due to COVID-19.

Dr. Amina Hanna, a pediatrician at Mid Coast Hospital who has been guiding RSU 1 through the reopening process,said sending younger students back to school full-time is beneficial both because it helps their mental and emotional health and because young children have a low risk of spreading and contracting COVID-19.

“In my practice, I’ve never seen more kids who have emotional and mental health concerns than I have seen [since COVID-19] and I’ve been practicing for 21 years,” said Hanna. “Having kids have that contact with their teachers, the guidance counselor and seeing their peers is so important.”

Hanna said children age 10 and under have a significantly lower risk of contracting COVID-19, and if they do, “it’s because they have a positive case at home, not because there’s a positive case in their classroom.”

Students grades 6-12 will have in-person learning two days per week and remote learning for three days. During in-person learning, only half of students will be in the building. Wednesdays will be reserved for teachers to plan lessons, for students to catch up on work, and teachers will hold office hours for students who need additional help.

“If a student is having a hard time staying engaged, especially due to distance learning, they would be asked to come in on a Wednesday to ensure they’re getting some one-on-one help with a counselor,” said Joseph.

Morse High School will have a semester course schedule, meaning students will take four courses during the fall semester of school and four courses in the spring semester rather than taking eight courses at once. Joseph said this schedule was chosen because it both limits how many students interact while in school and “Makes distance learning more manageable for kids.”

Full-time distance learning will be available for families who are uncomfortable with in-person learning. Families are required to commit to either the district’s plan or remote learning by Aug. 17. That commitment will last through December break, according to Joseph.

Responding to a survey sent to staff and parents in June, 83% of families said they’d send their children to school if Maine Center for Disease Control guidelines were followed, but 15% said they’d keep their children home. About 82% of staff members said they’d return to school in the fall, but 14% said no.

While in school, all students and staff will follow guidance from the Maine CDC and the Maine Department of Education, which mandates masks for everyone over the age of 2. A face shield may be an alternative for students with medical, behavioral or other challenges who are unable to wear a mask.

Adults will be required to stay 6 feet away from others, and children must keep 3 feet of distance between one another.

Students also will stay in one group throughout the day, except during lunch when half the class will have recess while the other half eat in their classroom, allowing students to spread six feet apart when masks are removed.

“Respiratory particles are the primary way that COVID-19 is spread,” said Hanna. “When you’re talking, most people will spray in a potentially 3-foot radius. With no face covering, there’s about a 13% risk of infection if there’s no distancing. That decreases to a 2.6% risk at 3 feet, then at 6 feet, a 1% risk.”

All students and staff must do “self-checks” before entering school or boarding the bus. If someone is experiencing symptoms, they cannot go to school, the reopening plan states. Students will not have their temperatures checked at school because about 50% of children diagnosed with COVID-19 have had a fever as a symptom, according to Hanna.

The board of directors approved the proposed plan, but asked administrators to consider implementing a hybrid plan for the younger children before they begin coming to school full-time. Manuel said the format of the “easing-in period” hasn’t been decided, but will likely be a few weeks when younger students have half-days or go to school for two or three per week to allow them to get used to the new safety procedures.

If students opt to do full-time distance learning, Joseph said they would be matched with a teacher at home “so students are getting a much more authentic, individualized experience and connection through distance learning rather than having a teacher who is already with students five days a week.”

“We haven’t been able to plan this out in detail because we don’t know what the numbers look like yet,” she said. “For pre-k through fifth grade, they could have a teacher that is not in their building. We’re going to try to match students with a teacher who can best meet their needs.”

Middle school students doing full-time distance learning will likely have two teachers, one responsible for English, history and social studies, and math and science teacher.

Joseph said high school students doing online learning will be the most difficult to arrange, but will likely involve students watching either live or recorded lessons from their teachers, but that depends on how many students and teachers choose not to return to school.

Over 30 RSU 1 parents sent public comments to the board. Board Chair Stephen August said many comments included individualized questions that the board didn’t yet have answers for, but some parents wrote the board with concerns over whether students with Individualized Education Programs will be able to access the educational support they deserve.

In RSU 1, 260 students, about 20% of the district’s students, have Individualized Education Programs, said board member Lorna Ryan.

Manuel said if a student is coming to school full-time, they should not have problems accessing their Individualized Education Programs. If a student is older, the district is looking into having them come into school five days per week, depending on their special education program, to ensure they have access to the resources they need.

August said the district understands the anxiety and uncertainty parents, staff and students may feel about returning to school, but said there is no one plan that would please everyone.

“This has been a long process with a great deal of uncertainty and concern … but we really have no alternative but to continue to work through this situation and, as a community, come to a resolution,” said August. “This is going to test us all, but we’re resilient and we will persevere.”

RSU 1 isn’t the only Midcoast school district outlining its plans for this upcoming school year. Maine School Administrative District 75, which covers Topsham, Harpswell, Bowdoin and Bowdoinham, is also giving families two options: Send their children to school with the understanding that there will be a phased reentry and an initial hybrid education model, or keep their children home for remote-only teaching for at least the first trimester or semester of the year, depending on grade level.

During the first week of school, MSAD 75 students will be broken up into groups and attend school for half-days, two days per week. Teachers will discuss what’s working and what may need to change in the afternoon. Following the first week, students will return for full days, but maintain the same alternating schedule.

One group will attend school Monday and Thursday and the other will attend Tuesday and Friday, meaning that only about half the students will be in their school building at any given time. The other three days, students will learn remotely. Wednesdays will be reserved for cleaning.

Brunswick-area schools also developed a hybrid plan in which kids in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade attend school two days per week, with three online. Each class will be broken into cohorts that will either attend school on Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday with Wednesday reserved for cleaning.

At the high school level, Brunswick freshmen will be divided into four cohorts and will attend school in person for one day each week. Sophomores, juniors and seniors will learn remotely.

RSU 1’s full reopening plan is available on the district’s website.

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