The Brunswick School Board discusses reopening during a Zoom meeting on Wednesday.

BRUNSWICK — Brunswick school officials on Wednesday presented a revised reopening plan that would allow upperclassmen on campus for one day per week, like the rest of their peers. 

This allowance, however, increases the potential risk of COVID-19 transmission to teachers and staff. This is the main deviation from a controversial hybrid plan announced last week that had freshmen returning to school for one day of in-person instruction per week and four days of remote learning, but had sophomores, juniors and seniors learning online only. 

The rest of the plan remains much the same. 

Kids in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade will attend school two days per week, with three online. Classes will be divided into cohorts — one will attend school on Mondays and Tuesdays, the other will attend Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays, which will be remote for everyone, will be reserved for deep cleaning and professional development for staff.

Students at the junior high will also be grouped into cohorts with the same two-day in-person learning schedule, but instead of the students changing classes, they will stay in the same room in “pods” of 12 students for the full day to help reduce the number of person-to-person interactions for both students and staff. 

Core teachers will provide synchronous or “live” learning opportunities to each pod along with their remote counterparts and each pod will be paired with three teachers or “academic coaches” to facilitate the learning in person. In-building blocks will be approximately 70 minutes long and at-home blocks will be about 45 minutes, with office hours later in the day. 

In the high school, where there are four academic levels and classes mixed by grade level throughout eight instructional periods and graduation requirements to consider, it becomes more complicated, Shanna Crofton, director of curriculum, assessment, instruction professional development, told the school board. 

In this plan, students would be broken into three groups for four condensed 45-minute periods of instruction. Classes would be dismissed at 11:45, lunch would be eaten at home (or provided in a bag for students who need it), followed by an hour of distanced learning or virtual help at the end of the day. For the other four days, students would learn remotely, with live and pre-recorded or independent assignments. 

There will be exceptions for students with special needs, homeless students, Region 10 students, English for speakers of other languages and a few others, and those plans will be handled on a more individualized basis, according to school officials. 

All families will also have the option to pursue distance-only learning, but are asked to commit to doing so until December break. 

School was initially slated to begin Aug. 31, but last week officials recommended starting Sept. 8 to allow teachers more time to prepare. Now, they are requesting Sept. 14. 

Concerns

The original plan, which excluded upperclassmen from returning, had many parents worried for the emotional wellbeing of their children even more so than for their academic well-being. In an emotional plea to the school board Wednesday, Corey Perreault, a former board member and parent of a recent graduate, asked the board to make sure seniors would be able to return. 

“If you have to choose a class to have in school, let it be the class who has the most to lose,” she said. 

Her daughter had to miss a significant portion of her senior year due to health issues, she said, and even though she was able to complete the necessary academic requirements, she missed out on more of the social parts of the school year and it “affected her in more ways than I’ll ever know,” she said. 

Isolation from peers “can be devastating,” Perreault said, and students “need to have these shared experiences in person,” especially the seniors, for whom it will be their “last chance to be a kid.” 

Board member Elizabeth Sokoloff said Wednesday’s presentation seemed the more equitable of the two for students, but that she has serious concerns about the elevated risk of exposure for high school teachers. 

According to Crofton, teachers at the Kate Furbish and Harriet Beecher Stowe schools will have contact with roughly 12 to 24 students per week, and teachers at the junior high school will have contact with 12 to 30. That number drastically increases at the high school level, with an anticipated 48 to 72 contacts per week. 

It’s a balancing act and a compromise, superintendent Phillip Potenziano said, adding that they still don’t know how many students or staff might choose remote-only instruction. 

“I know our job as parents is to advocate for our children,” board member Celina Harrison said, but “please think about our teachers.

“These are real humans that we are asking to come in” and risk exposure to something “potentially life-threatening,” she said, urging fellow board members to proceed cautiously. 

“If we are conservative now, it could be a short term solution that could potentially save lives. … A death is forever, a semester is not.” 

Board member Sarah Singer agreed with the need to weigh the decision carefully. If something were to happen “we will live with that regret for the rest of our lives,” she said, and “you only get the benefit of that perspective if we start in the most conservative position.” 

Even with the revised plan, which allays many parents’ worries that their upperclassmen children were left out of considerations, there are still concerns.

Some parents said the district was being unnecessarily conservative given Brunswick’s relatively low number of COVID-19 cases and surrounding towns’ reopening plans, many of which include more days of in-person instruction and the three-foot separation between students. Others felt they shouldn’t be reopening at all. 

“The last five months have been absolutely awful for so many,” parent Rich Ellis said, but “I do not believe enough has changed to justify reopening.” 

There are other practical and financial hurdles as well. 

With all students learning remotely for a minimum of three days per week, some are worried about childcare from an expense standpoint, as well as an exposure one.

For parents who both work and have young children, full-time childcare three days per week will be a “great expense,” said Joel Siano, a parent with two daughters in the Brunswick school system. 

Another parent agreed and said the hybrid plan was “the least equitable option that could be pursued,” as it will likely “exacerbate the socioeconomic inequities” that already exist for parents who do not have the option of staying home but cannot afford childcare. 

Daycare centers like the YMCA and the Family Focus are working with the schools to help provide care, but will also create more people for students to come in contact with through their day-to-day routines. The cost of care will be determined by providers, not the school department. 

Officials also said some families will likely be forming their own “pods” and grouping students together for remote learning with adults who are able to stay at home. 

Tyler Patterson, student liaison to the board said that, in the spring, many students struggled to complete the necessary work and maintain their social and emotional wellbeing. 

Safety protocols

Brunswick students, employees and visitors will be required to wear masks at all times, personal hygiene and facilities’ cleaning practices will be enhanced and social distancing protocols will be enforced. 

However, unlike other districts, which recommend three feet of distance between students, Brunswick officials are requiring at least a six-foot distance for everyone, including children at the recommendation of the district pediatrician, Dr. Alyssa Goodwin. 

On Thursday the district also released more information surrounding safety and illness protocols. 

For example, students and parents are asked to self-screen before coming in each day and monitor for symptoms of COVID-19, which include: fever, shortness of breath, cough, chills, muscle pain, sore throat, new loss of taste or smell, nausea or vomiting, stomach pain, diarrhea, headache, fatigue, rash, congestion/runny nose, swelling or redness of hands and feet, and red eyes/eye drainage. Students or staff with any of the aforementioned symptoms are asked to stay home and will need to do so until they self-quarantine for 14 days, return with a doctor’s note saying the symptoms are not COVID-related, or they have tested negative for the virus. 

“If we’re really thoughtful before we take a step on the bus or in the school. … It can do a lot to prevent ourselves from taking two steps forward and five steps back,” Goodwin said Wednesday.  

The school board intends to vote on reopening Aug. 12. A detailed description of the proposal is available on the school department’s website and anyone interested in providing feedback or questions can email [email protected]

This story has been updated to correct board member Celina Harrison’s name. 

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