Camden Dumont of Topsham, a seventh-grader at Mt. Ararat Middle School, gets off the school bus after the first day of school Tuesday. Darcie Moore / The Times Record

Fletcher Robinson, 5, may have spilled chocolate milk on his dinosaur-print mask (twice) and Camden Dumont, 13, may have spent the day looking through mask-fogged glasses, but students, families and teachers in the southern Midcoast reported a smooth to a strange school year on Tuesday. 

Regional School Unit 1, Regional School Unit 5 and Maine School Administrative District 75 students returned to classrooms Tuesday, wearing masks and keeping their distance as they start the year in hybrid models that vary among districts but all have been shaped by the coronavirus pandemic. Brunswick students make their return to school Sept. 14. 

After wearing his mask for six hours, Theo Lyons, a fifth grader at Mast Landing Elementary School in Freeport, was more than ready to take it off. He said he’d be more used to it by the end of the week. 

The mask, hand sanitizer and social distancing were a small price to pay to see friends he hadn’t seen since March, he said. With soccer back in session, too, the Freeport 10 year old is feeling optimistic about the year ahead. 

“I like how school hasn’t really changed,” he said after the first day. “You can’t be too close to each other, but it goes on normally.”

Fletcher Robinson, 5, swings with his pet rock, Rocko (right) and “Rocko’s mommy” (left) at his home in Freeport after his first day of school on Tuesday. Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record

Wednesday, Theo and half the students in RSU5 will be back at home for the first day of distanced learning, while the other half of students in the district, which includes Freeport, Pownal and Durham, go in for their first day in the classrom. 

RSU5’s hybrid model divides K-12 students into two cohorts, with one group attending school on Mondays and Wednesdays and the other on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Cohorts will alternate on Fridays, meaning students will have three days of in-person instruction every other week. If all goes according to plan, the district will be fully transitioned to in-person learning by mid-October.

The plan focuses on the kids who are learning in the classroom, with remote education geared toward independent learning, especially at the elementary school level, which principals say mirrors their current curriculum. 

Theo said he did well with online learning in the spring and enjoyed the flexibility of learning at his own pace, taking breaks when he needed to, and coming back to it when he was ready. Still, he missed his friends.

There will be some kinks to work out as the year progresses, but Christine Lyons, Theo’s mother, said she is thrilled to have the kids back at school, and that the district seems prepared for this new chapter, largely because of all the work done over the summer.  

Sophia Robinson, a third-grader, already knows that Mast Landing is the “best school ever” — and she told her mom so when she picked her up from school on Tuesday.

It was a little hot, so wearing her mask was tough, she said, but they had mask breaks outside. She liked her teacher, her best friend is in her class and they already worked on math, reading, writing and music. All in all, a good first day back at school. 

“We were ready for it,” her mother, Ashley Robinson said. “I think mental health is equally as important at physical health, and both my kids really needed that socialization.” Sophia, 8, and Fletcher, 6, were “ready for some sense of normalcy,” she said, even if they can’t hug their teachers or friends like they might under normal circumstances. 

Robinson decided to leave her job to become a stay at home mom, a decision partly influenced by the unknowns heading into the new year. 

Wednesday, she will help teach two other kindergarten students, forming a “pod” for the remote days. 

Already, it seems like the district has a better handle on the distance learning than they did in the spring, with more of a focus on learning independently rather than on Zoom, she said, and having a day in school followed by a day at home is a great way to ease back into the year after roughly six months at home. 

Despite the success of the first day, both Ashley Robinson and Christine Lyons agreed they hope the district is able switch to full in-person learning in October, provided it’s safe. 

“It’s not as disruptive, and it’s so important for those social connections,” Lyons said. 

Jennifer Winkler, the fifth grade teacher at Pownal Elementary School, saw the importance of those connections firsthand on Tuesday.

At the end of the day, she had her students list their “rosebud” and “thorn,” or the high and low points of the day. Almost without fail, each student said the rosebud was seeing their friends again.

Theo Lyons, 10, a fifth grader at Mast Landing Elementary School n Freeport, plays on the playground after school on Tuesday. Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record

Winkler felt from the beginning that it was important to get the students back in school this fall if they could do so safely, and while Tuesday was a “very hectic, busy day,” she said it went well. 

Before long, the routine was down, and the kids were “sanitizing like champs.” 

Winkler said she saw several different methods to help enforce physical distancing. For the younger kids, one method having kids hold a rope as they walked, with knots spaced six feet apart to maintain distancing. She also reminded her students to keep one “moose length” between themselves. 

“I felt comfortable being there, and I feel like there are a lot of layers in place” to help keep everyone safe and in school, she said, adding that pushing the start date back from Aug. 31 to Sept. 8 was “huge” to help teachers prepare. 

Winkler said she plans to “take the smooth days as they come,” knowing there will likely be some challenging days down the road.

Mt. Ararat Middle School

Andrea Brown, a sixth grade social studies and language arts teacher at Mt. Ararat Middle School, never thought she’d have to know the proper way to take off a mask, or how to drink water while masked, but on Tuesday, she found herself learning alongside her students. 

The first day of school was a half day for Mt. Ararat Middle School and the rest of MSAD75, which includes Topsham, Bowdoin, Bowdoinham and Harpswell.  

For the roughly three hours she had students Tuesday, Brown focused mostly on going over procedures at school and what school will look like. That included talking about the best route to walk to exit the classroom to avoid coming too close to classmates.

“On the whole, actually, the kids did a wonderful job,” she said, adding that getting to see the students in person was “a real treat.”

There were 18 students she was able to space 6 feet apart by using a double classroom that is normally divided into two classrooms.

The social distancing took the most work and thought, she said, “because when you get tougher with a group of people, you’re not conscious of it and you just sort of stand near each other.” 

Kids practiced holding out their arms to make sure they were far enough apart so they didn’t touch. Brown took her students outside for a walk and had them bring their snacks. They each sat in a parking space in an empty parking lot to take their mask off and eat.

Students didn’t seem put off by the strangeness of school, which this week is a half-day for students in Maine School Administrative District 75. 

Camden Dumont, a seventh-grader at Mt. Ararat Middle School, said it was important for him to return to school and be with his friends.

Dumont stayed with the same class of students all day instead of changing classes, which he normally would as a seventh grader. Teachers came to students to speak to them.

“There is a good possibility that we may go back to online, which I don’t like because then I can’t see my friends,” Dumont said.

Dumont said he learns better in school than learning online, so he hopes the in-person instruction can continue.

Jennifer Harrow-Mortelliti of Topsham said she had to have multiple conversations with her son, Aidan Gomez and his father about whether they wanted Gomez to return to school as part of MSAD 75’s mix of in-person and remote learning. 

Sophia Robinson, 8, enjoys a snack after school on Tuesday. The third-grader at Mast Landing told her mom that her new school was “the best school ever.” Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record

Gomez, an eighth-grader at Mt. Ararat Middle School, did well with remote learning when the school building closed to students in the spring. Harrow-Mortelliti said they wanted Gomez to have the social aspect of in-person instruction at school so he’ll be at the middle school on Monday and Tuesdays and remote learning the other days starting next week. She said the school told her while it wouldn’t be ideal, they will let Gomez switch to remote-only learning if the family becomes uncomfortable with having him at school. That gave them peace of mind, she said.

“You’ve got to try to do the best you can for your kiddos,” Harrow-Mortelliti said. “This is probably the biggest thing that has happened in our lifetime and we’re trying to make the right choice. We weighed a lot of things.”

She and her husband both work for home so they opted to drive Gomez to school in the morning and pick him up after school so he doesn’t have to ride the school bus. Tuesday morning, school staff stood outside holding signs to direct parents but she went to the wrong drop spot initially.

“There were the hiccups you would expect,” Harrow-Mortelliti said.

Gomez said he spent most of the day in his homeroom with six students. Most of the overview on Tuesday happened outside where students were able to take masks off as long as they kept 15 feet apart. 

Students didn’t have to be reminded to keep masks on as much as teachers had to remind them to keep a distance between each other, Gomez said. 

Despite the new safety protocols he experienced Tuesday, Gomez said he looks forward to returning to school. He’s excited about his algebra class, a high school level class. It’s easier to learn those skills in a traditional classroom, he said. 

Morse High School

Carolyn Nichols, a biology teacher at Morse High School in Bath, was surprised, but happily so, by how well the first day of school went. 

“The kids were respectful and took the coronavirus precautions seriously,” she said. “I haven’t slept in a week, but I’m impressed with how well it went. 

Nichols said students must wear a face mask, apply hand sanitizer before entering a classroom and at the end of class they’re given a sanitizing wipe to clean their desk. 

“By the end of the day they were asking, ‘Where are our hand wipes?’” she said. “They knew the routine.” 

In Regional School Unit 1, which serves Bath, Phippsburg, Arrowsic and Woolwich, students and teachers at Morse High School were on their best behavior to give themselves the best chance of keeping their part-time in-person learning plan.

RSU 1 students grades 6-12 have in-person learning two days per week and remote learning for three days. During in-person learning, only half of students are in the building. Wednesdays are reserved for teachers to plan lessons, for students to catch up on work, and teachers hold office hours for students who need additional help.

Pre-K through fifth graders in RSU 1 were split into two groups that attend school for two days with no remote learning on the days they’re not in school, then transition to attending school five days per week on Sept. 28. 

Nina Ryan, a junior at Morse, said every student she saw was wearing a mask and doing their best to keep their distance from one another while in the hallways, despite the excitement of being back in school with their friends again. 

Classes are, in some cases, only a third of what they were before the pandemic, Nichols said —  a change she sees as a silver lining because teachers are able to build closer relationships with their students. 

“Teaching is not only about content but it’s about relationships and how to work in groups, and learning from one another,” she said. “With fewer students in class at once, we can create a tight-knit learning community. I think it’s going to be something special and I’m looking forward to it.” 

Morse High School is operating on a semester course schedule, meaning students are taking four courses during the fall semester and four courses in the spring semester rather than taking eight courses at once. 

This helps limit how many students interact while in school and “make distance learning more manageable for kids,” according to RSU 1 Superintendent Patrick Manuel.  

Nina Ryan has faith her classmates will continue to follow the district’s coronavirus guidelines, but if the school needs to continue the semester course schedule into next semester, it may become difficult for some students to manage the pace of learning 36 weeks’ worth of a subject in 18 weeks. 

“If we have to continue [a semester course schedule] a whole year or, God forbid, two, that’s going to discourage some students,” she said.

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