It is safe to say that this fall is going to be one of the hardest, most anxious and most exciting school starts we have ever experienced.

Becky Foley is superintendent of schools in Regional School Unit 5 (Freeport-Durham-Pownal). She can be reached at [email protected]

On March 14, superintendents in Cumberland County made the difficult decision to switch to remote learning for what we hoped would only be two weeks to help “flatten the curve.” That closure dragged into three months, which led to the summer break, resulting in six months away from in-person learning with our students. We have learned many lessons since our students were last physically present in our classrooms.

We learned continuous improvement is better than waiting for perfection, an unattainable quest. We quickly realized last March that learning had to continue, no matter how imperfect our instruction was, rather than wait for COVID-19 to disappear from our lives. We had only three days for our teachers to prepare for remote learning. Perfection in this context would be impossible. However, we strove for the pursuit of excellence through daily, continuous improvement. Mistakes were made and those mistakes helped us grow and evolve. We know that synchronous (face-to-face) opportunities to learn and connect are important to our community and our students. This fall we are expanding synchronous opportunities for students when working remotely. As the likelihood of shifting between in-person and remote learning throughout the year is almost inevitable, the ability to quickly adapt to whatever challenges present themselves will help ensure the best continuation of learning for our students.

We also learned there are several tasks that can be done more efficiently and effectively remotely. Although many of us have had enough Zoom meetings to last a lifetime, in some cases these meetings save time and allow for expanded participation that otherwise would not occur. We had the largest attendance at a school board meeting around the reopening of school because parents and staff could quickly click on a link in the convenience of their homes and be a part of the conversation. Parents appreciate not having to leave work or home to attend school for an hour-long meeting that can be done just as efficiently remotely. This shift has allowed for more parental participation at meetings. There are also many meetings where teachers or administrators can log in from their classrooms or offices, eliminating the need for inefficient travel time. People’s attitudes, including mine, have forever shifted to realize that there are times when virtual meetings can be more efficient and productive. This will be a part of our new routine, long after the virus has left us.

Most importantly, we learned that whether educating our students remotely or in person, relationships are still what’s most important. We have always focused the return of students in September on relationship- and routine-building; however, this has never been more important than in September 2020. We will have to build new routines of physically distancing, keeping masks on, celebrating one’s accomplishments without large assemblies and having extracurricular events without packed bleachers and auditoriums. In the upcoming weeks, collectively we will solve these new problems, just as we did when we were thrust into remote learning months ago. We enter this year knowing the importance of staying ever-adaptable and the importance of building strong relationships to solve our problems. What this pandemic has made clear is that education requires a collective effort from teachers, school leaders and parents. In RSU 5 we have all the ingredients to have a very successful year, no matter what the hidden challenges are that await us!

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