Sarah Gay, a reading teacher for gifted students in South Portland, will work in a repurposed room on the basement floor at Mahoney Middle School. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Masked teachers gathered in small groups to plan lessons, administrators finalized staffing schedules, and the new school nurse set up her office across from a coronavirus isolation room last week at Mahoney Middle School.

In a former weight room in the school’s basement, gifted-reading teacher Sarah Gay set up her classroom as part of a schoolwide effort to utilize every space available to allow for maximum social distancing.

A bright photograph of sunflowers hung on the wall behind her desk, belying Gay’s nervousness about the start of school. “I don’t feel great about any of it,” she said. “At this point everyone is talking about building the airplane while we’re already in the air, and it’s terrifying.”

Many schools in Maine start welcoming students back in-person for the first time in almost six months this week. There will be fewer students and teachers in buildings and a new regimen of health and safety protocols.

School buses will run more frequently, and in some districts the school day will be shorter. Everyone will wear masks, and school meals will look different, with some students eating in classrooms rather than cafeterias.

The first day of school is normally an exciting time for students and teachers, but for many it’s coming with mixed emotions this year as schools around Maine bring students back for in-person learning amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s going to be a huge learning curve, like it will be for every school,” said Erin Bouchard, an English teacher at Scarborough High School who is taking a leave of absence to start the school year because of a lack of child care for her own children. “Everybody’s been putting in hours of training and learning new programs and technology.

“We’re all in the same boat. We’re all scared. We’re all nervous. We’re all anxious. We want to see students, but there are so many unknowns. I truly believe it has to be — forget one day at a time — it’s going to be one class at a time, one hour at a time.”

Students will start returning Tuesday to Mahoney Middle School in South Portland, where half of the students will attend classes Mondays and Thursdays and the other half will attend Tuesdays and Fridays. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

As districts prepare to return, they’re facing staffing challenges, rolling out new health and safety precautions and launching remote-only learning options for students who can’t or don’t want to return in person.

“This is a tough time for everyone,” said Aaron Townsend, assistant superintendent of Portland Public Schools. “What the pandemic is asking of all of us is super challenging. I think staff are doing amazing stuff, and it’s very hard – the anxiety around how all this will play out, the anxiousness to see kids again. It’s a mixture of anxiety and excitement and managing all this.”

Portland schools will open under a hybrid model Sept. 14, but the district is offering two days of in-person orientation Wednesday and Thursday for students and staff to run through health and safety precautions. Townsend said staffing is one of the biggest challenges heading into the first day, as the district is still looking to hire 11 classroom teachers and about 10 English language learner teachers.

“We’re working super hard,” Townsend said. “We’re looking forward to seeing kids again and having them in our buildings. Our staff is doing incredible work to get ready for that, and we’re looking forward to getting over this hump and adjusting.”

In Scarborough, which will start bringing students from certain grades back Tuesday, Superintendent Sanford Prince said the district is prepared for the first day despite some concerns in the community.

“Our buildings are prepared,” Prince said. “Our stickers are down. We’re ready to go. I know people are worried and may have a different perception, but all our materials are in – masks and protective gear. We’re excited to have school open, and I think kids are excited to come back to school whether it’s remote or a few days per week.”

About 370 students, or just over 12 percent, of the population in Scarborough schools have opted for remote-only education, Prince said. Human resources is also working with staff to process accommodation requests, Prince said, and they are still working to find enough substitute teachers.

Mahoney Middle School teachers Scott Patashnika, Julie Lefebvre, center, and Laurie Milton prepare last week for the start of school. The three teachers will be sharing a classroom where the students will remain for the duration of the day. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“In any good year it’s hard to get subs, and this year it’s going to be even more challenging given what everyone is going through as far as school systems with certain staff not being able to come back,” Prince said. “We are doing our best to recruit people and get the word out that we would welcome any more subs we can get to sign up.”

In South Portland, where students will also start returning Tuesday, Mahoney Middle School Principal Carrie Stilphen said staff have been working hard to prepare since Aug. 26, when they returned. The school is on a hybrid plan with half the population learning in-person Monday and Thursday and the other half Tuesday and Friday.

“So much has been about planning and protocols and bathrooms that this morning at our staff meeting we really made the transition to ‘Tuesday is our big day,'” Stilphen said Thursday. “People are excited.”

The school would normally hold an open house the week before the first day to provide families with information on their homeroom teachers and the start of school, but that was held virtually last week. The school day will start at 8:10 a.m. just like a normal year, and students will be spread out to different entrances.

Lockers aren’t being assigned, and the first day assembly will be recorded and played on big TVs in classrooms rather than held in-person in the auditorium.

Gay, the reading teacher in South Portland, said while staff are excited to see students return there’s also a sense that it’s only a matter of time before they return to remote learning.

“Everyone wants to do what’s best for kids,” she said. “Everyone wants to make sure we’re starting the year making kids feel comfortable and welcome, but there’s definitely a sense of, ‘How long are we going to be here anyways?’ It’s been really interesting watching people simultaneously invested and trying to make a quirky plan work, but also being a little checked out because no one knows how much of the time we put into things will be worth it.”

An isolation room has been set up at Mahoney Middle School in preparation for the start of school. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Families are also feeling the stress. Pedro Vazquez and his wife, Lindsey, have three children in South Portland schools and are choosing to keep them remote. Vazquez, who is of Caribbean descent, said knowing how the virus has disproportionately impacted people of color in Maine factored into their decision.

“Nobody really knows the deal with this virus,” Pedro Vazquez said. “We keep getting different information. Some say there are no long-term effects. Some say it’s a mild flu. I’m just not interested in taking part in a public health experiment where my kids’ lives are at stake.”

The couple said they were frustrated by a lack of information about what the remote option will look like for their children in the eighth, fifth and second grades despite getting emails and other information about what in-person learning will look like.

“I understand we’re in a place we’ve never been before and there are so many moving parts,” Pedro Vazquez said. “I understand it’s a very complex and difficult issue to tackle. I know that individuals in leadership have probably lost a lot of sleep trying to put this together, but it almost feels like because we haven’t elected to go back into the building we’re more of an afterthought.”

South Portland Superintendent Ken Kunin said the district doesn’t have final numbers for remote-only enrollment yet, but is anticipating it will be between 300 and 400 students, or 10 to 13 percent of the student population.

On Friday he said the district was in the process of providing families with additional information on what fully remote will look like and that the program would not start until on or around Sept. 21, due in part to a need to deliver devices to elementary school students.

In Portland schools, about 900 students, or 13 percent of last year’s enrollment of 6,750, have enrolled in Remote Academy, the district’s remote-only option for the first trimester.

Caitlin Harrigan, a fifth-grade teacher at Gerald E. Talbot Community School, had requested an accommodation because of a conflict with her son’s day care schedule, and was surprised to learn that instead of returning to school in-person she’s been assigned to teach in the Remote Academy.

“It was a shock,” Harrigan said. “I’m excited about it. I think it will be a very innovative program. It is now the largest elementary school in Portland Public Schools.”

Caitlin Harrigan, at home in North Yarmouth, has been assigned to the remote-only option in Portland Public Schools. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Harrigan took a class over the summer on online learning, not expecting she would be fully remote in the fall, and she’s been working with other teachers around the district to develop the Remote Academy curriculum. She won’t meet any of her students in person, though many of them she knows from prior years at Talbot.

Personally, she said she’s lucky to now have a schedule that will complement her son’s day care schedule as many teachers and parents have struggled to come up with viable child care options under districts’ hybrid models.

“Everyone is unsure,” Harrigan said. “Knowing Portland Public Schools’ staff, they will do everything they can to keep themselves and the children in the district safe, but it comes with a lot of uncertainty and it is new teaching for everyone.

“No one signed up to be a teacher during a global pandemic, and no one knows how to teach this way, whether it’s remote or teaching in person. A lot of the tools we have we have had to get rid of because of social distancing and mask wearing. I think every single person feels like a brand new teacher, and that in itself is scary.”

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