More than 50 School Administrative District parents tuned into an Aug. 6 informational session on the district’s school reopening plan.

CUMBERLAND — Face coverings worn all day in class. Two school days a week on campus, the other three learning from home. Keeping 6 feet apart from other students.

These are some of the restrictions established for a return to in-school learning this fall by School Administrative District 51, as well as many other school systems looking to re-open amid the coronavirus pandemic. SAD 51’s procedures for reopening – grades kindergarten to 12 start Sept. 8, and pre-kindergarten Sept. 14 – are detailed at msad51.org.

The Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention reported that as of Aug. 7, North Yarmouth had 13 cases of the virus that causes COVID-19 of a population of 3,975, Cumberland Center had 33 of a population of 6,595, and Cumberland Foreside had six among a population of 1,569. Soon after SAD 51 closed its schools in March, the district reported three cases at the Mabel I. Wilson elementary school: one student and two staff.

Elias Leggat-Barr, a rising senior at Greely High School in Cumberland, is spending much of his time outside before his return to in-school learning this fall. Courtesy Elias Leggat-Barr

SAD 51’s plan calls for returning students to be split into two groups, with one attending classes Monday and Tuesday, and the other Thursday and Friday. Each group would learn remotely, potentially, via livestream video on the other two days. Both groups would learn from home Wednesdays. Superintendent Jeff Porter said 115 students, out of an anticipated enrollment of 2,175, have opted to continue complete at-home instruction.

Students age 5 and older, as well as educators and staff, are required to wear a mask or face covering in class and on buses, and they are recommended for 4-year-olds. It’s not the ideal way to spend a day, senior Elias Leggat-Barr said, but he sees it as an important compromise in being able to return to some degree of face-to-face instruction.

“I’m in full support of trying, at all costs, to make sure there’s some aspect of in-person learning throughout this year,” he said. “… The value of in-person communication through a class is, I think, truly unparalleled and something that you can’t truly recreate online.”

The plan isn’t perfect, Leggat-Barr acknowledged, but is “the best possible way” to keep students safe and, through halved class sizes, allow for safe distancing between students, “while trying to still create an engaging learning environment.”

He noted that it could be difficult to wear a mask all day, particularly for younger students, “but clearly the science shows that wearing a mask greatly decreases anyone’s risk of passing on COVID if they have it.”

Peter Segal was one of more than 50 parents who tuned into an Aug. 6 online informational meeting about SAD 51’s re-entry plan. With parents being the ones responsible for ensuring their children are healthy before sending them to school, he questioned why there is no process in place for staff to take students’ temperatures as they enter classrooms.

Porter said the district’s physician questioned the accuracy and time consumption of swift mass testing. A student who does exhibit symptoms will be immediately sent to the school nurse, who will quickly follow up with that youth’s family, the superintendent said.

“We’re probably going to be a little more vigilant than you expect at the beginning of the year for a few weeks,” Porter said, noting that a nurse has been added at both the elementary and middle schools due to an anticipated increase in activity in those offices. “… We’re just being very proactive and cautious right now.”

If a COVID-19 case emerges in a classroom this fall, the school district could send students and teachers from that classroom, or the wing around that room, home for a few days, Porter said. In a more dire circumstance, a “dramatic drop in student attendance across the board” could shut the district down, he said.

George Spino said he has three children in SAD 51 schools, one of whom has asthma. He questioned whether his son would be “ostracized from the school, and every time he coughs, get sent to the COVID ward.” Spino also said another son has issues with speech and making eye contact, and is worried that his development will be hurt by everyone wearing masks.

The father also expressed concern about the emotional developmental impact on incoming kindergartners, who will have to keep distant from teachers and other students.

Porter assured Spino that nurses and teachers will be apprised of students’ health conditions, and teachers of younger students may be wearing clear masks to allow those pupils to see the instructor’s mouth and facial expressions. Speech language clinicians and English as a Second Language teachers will wear clear masks, Porter said.

Praising the dedication of SAD 51’s kindergarten teachers, the superintendent said, “I know they will find ways to nurture the kids.”

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