School Board Chairwoman Whitney Bruce talks about plans to reopen Falmouth schools, which will begin with a hybrid model on Sept. 8. Courtesy

FALMOUTH — Falmouth Public School teachers have criticized plans to reopen schools, citing a survey that showed half of local educators were uncomfortable starting off with a hybrid model.

Classes will start Sept. 8, with the student population split in half and alternating between remote learning and in-person classes. The school committee also approved remote learning and in-person learning models that could be implemented, depending on COVID-19 cases in the county and CDC guidelines.

Superintendent Geoff Bruno, during the School Committee meeting Monday night. Courtesy photo

Teachers at Monday’s school committee meeting were leery of returning to buildings. They wanted details about how emergency changes to the plans will be communicated to staff and what teachers should do in response. That includes how they should react if COVID-19 is discovered among students.

Educators also said they are concerned about ed techs and substitute teacher posts that remain unfilled.

The school board will revisit the plan Sept. 28.

“There are too many questions and inevitable unexpected problems that will arise when the year begins,” said Chris Driscoll, a seventh grade math teacher and vice president of the Falmouth Education Association. “The admins haven’t been able to give us answers we need to feel safe.”

Within the reopening plan are three models: a hybrid, a return of all students to in-school learning and a plan for remote learning.

With the hybrid model, middle and high school students alternate in-person instruction every other day, with all students working remotely on Wednesdays. Elementary school students would attend in person for half days either in the morning or afternoon, with all students virtual on Wednesdays.

Driscoll was joined by two other teachers and two residents who support the remote learning plan over the hybrid plan for at least the first half of the year. Parents and other residents had mixed reactions to the news.

Survey reflects comfort level

According to Driscoll, a survey conducted by the teacher’s association showed that 45% of 188 responding teachers said they were uncomfortable returning to schools, and “fewer than a third said they were comfortable.”

“I want to praise our admins for their transparency and their effort; however, I have some clear concerns,” first grade teacher Jen Meserve said. “We have a lot to iron out. Some students, we need a policy for getting them even to and from the bathroom.”

Teachers called for details about how the school will inform teachers and families if people get sick, but also how the school would have teachers respond to outbreaks within their class or groups.

“There is too much at risk for individual educators to make snap decisions on the fly when unexpected problems arise,” Driscoll said. “We also need to know how to address if teachers take a leave of absence.”

According to the Maine Centers for Disease Control, there have been 2,143 cases of the virus in Cumberland County to date. As of Tuesday, however, no students in Falmouth Schools have tested positive for COVID-19, Bruno said.

Bruno said students who are believed to have become infected will get tested, and those who test positive can return to school after at least 10 days of quarantine and 24 hours free of symptoms.

According to school officials, a full return to remote learning would be similar to distanced learning implemented in the spring. That includes flexible scheduling and coursework done through online platforms, but may require some scheduled course work and classes for older students. Elementary students will connect more often than older students with their peers and teachers through regular online meetings. Food distribution services and programs would stay in place.

Students, parents have mixed feelings

Sam Nonni, a rising senior at Falmouth High School, told The Forecaster, said students should use remote learning for the first half of the year.

“The wisest thing is to do online work for the first half, at least in the chance that we could have a normal second half so the whole year isn’t craziness with it going back and forth,” he said.

“The hybrid model is the way to go for me,” high school student representative Charlie Geci told the school committee. “Some learning is superior to minimal, we can make in-person work safe and at half capacity.”

According to Director of Learning Gretchen McNulty, 175 out of roughly 2,200 students in the district opted to go fully remote this fall.

Parents at the meeting criticized the remote learning plan, raising concerns about single and working parents who can’t help with distanced learning or students who need direct help from social workers.

“I am a social worker and mother of two. I am concerned that we need that connection through every day, and concerned about parents who are not able to be around,” Kelley Newkirk said.

A full-return model would include modifications for safety following CDC guidelines. All students would still be required to wear a mask, while teachers will be tasked with class configurations following CDC guidelines. Markings on the floor will help maintain social distance, with six feet required when unmasked, or three feet when masked, Superintendent Geoff Bruno said.

Missed connections

“(With remote learning) kids are missing that connection with other kids,” parent Joseph Richard told The Forecaster. “A kid watching a screen all day alone gets disconnected from everything, they don’t have that physical attribute that hanging out with other people and adults give.”

“Remote learning did not work for my daughter, and I work full time so it was (hard) to sit down and help,” resident Jim Fuller said.

Plexiglas dividers will also be erected in high traffic areas; toys and other items that are that are hard to clean will be removed; there will be no field trips or large chorus/band gatherings and all buses will be cleaned regularly. An air ventilation system is being tested and optimized for each room.

Teachers will have 50-plus outdoor areas available to teach kids that can be used by teachers in the hybrid model as well. Bruno also noted a lot of additional measures ranging from additional outdoor space to more protective barriers have been added since teachers had taken the survey Driscoll referenced.

Students will have lunch in their rooms and all Wednesdays would be late-start days.

Nonni, the incoming Falmouth High senior, said while he didn’t like being away from his peers, he does not support a full return.

“I think our best bet is to be safer at the beginning of the year and see where we are the second semester,” Nonni said. “Why risk getting more people sick if we can possibly prevent that?”

Comments are not available on this story.