BATH — Citing safety concerns, Regional School Unit 1 will not switch their pre-kindergarten through 5th graders to an full in-person learning plan from the current mixed in-person and distance learning.

The hybrid plan was put into place in order to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, of which there has been more than 4,000 confirmed cases in Maine, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

RSU 1 Superintendent Patrick Manuel wrote to families that pre-kindergarten through grade 5 will continue to attend school in person two days a week, and distance learning will be introduced slowly.

The RSU 1 board of directors unanimously approved sticking with the hybrid plan Monday after reviewing a survey in which 60% of the responding teachers and staff told administrators they’re not convinced changing to a full-time in-person plan would be the safest option for students and staff.

“The main concerns that were discussed and shared by teachers and administrators were all focused around our ability to meet state-required safety procedures,” Manuel wrote. “As the people on the ground experiencing and monitoring social distancing, mask wearing, eating, and movement breaks, we value the feedback received by teachers and administrators that moving forward with our initial plan to be 100% on Sept. 28 would likely compromise the safety of students and staff.”

The district’s current plan for its roughly 600 pre-kindergartners through 5th-graders has them split into two groups that attend school for two days with no remote learning on the days they’re not in school.

RSU 1 serves Bath, Phippsburg, Arrowsic and Woolwich.

The principals of RSU 1’s elementary schools agreed with the board’s decision Monday, explaining that it can be difficult for students to keep their distance from one another during parts of the day including when students eat and move from one activity to another.

“As a school, I think we’d appreciate the ability to continue in our hybrid approach for a longer time,” said Jennifer McKay, Dike Newell School principal. “Right now, we have a system that is working, but everything becomes more challenging if we double the enrollment.”

This change does not affect RSU 1’s 6th through 12th graders, who have remained on a consistent hybrid learning plan, with two days in-person then three days of remote learning.

RSU 1 parents were surprised, then frustrated by the board’s decision, in part because the discussion of whether of extend the hybrid learning plan was not listed on the meeting agenda, giving parents no reason to watch the meeting or time to submit a public comment.

Courtney Bilokonski, who has a pre-kindergartner and a 4th grader in RSU 1, said she wants to see more open communication between the school board and families, starting with the district’s distance learning plan.

She said her 4th grader is in school on Monday and Thursday, but noticed by Thursday he has forgotten what he learned on Monday.

“I think them doing some distance learning will help with the continuity of his education, but that may depend on the student,” said Bilokonski.

Abby Estes, the mother of a pre-kindergartner at Dike Newell School, said she believes students should be allowed to return to school full-time because the district’s current plan is not effectively teaching students.

“The RSU1 school board is currently failing the majority of their community with this decision, especially their children Pre-K through 5th grade that are only receiving 2 unproductive days of education per week, despite the amazing and appreciated efforts of their educators and administrators,” she said. “We will begin to see, if not already, the developmental and educational gap in where our children should be at and where they are currently at with their education.”

Although she isn’t pleased with the board’s decision, Bilokonski said she considers herself fortunate because she works from home, making her able to stay home with her sons on the days they’re not in school.

“It has been difficult at times for me to accomplish what I need for my job, but I’m blessed that I can be at home with my children, but I know other parents are concerned about finding child care with so little warning,” she said.

Estes, who works full-time, said she’s concerned about the families like hers that may not be able to line up child care, which they may not have budgeted for, under such short notice.

“What about our care providers that will be overwhelmed with larger enrollment numbers?” Estes said. “What is the difference in safety between sending them to a daycare center versus a classroom? Absolutely no different in my opinion. Local day cares that have been open through the summer had no issues or outbreaks of COVID-19, following Maine CDC guidelines.”

In his letter to families, Manuel recognized how the district’s change in plans could affect families who expected to not need child care after Sept. 28.

“We are working with our community partners to see what additional child care options they can provide families,” Manuel wrote. “We recognize the timing of this decision is challenging for families, but we did not want to make the decision until we had experienced at least two weeks of school to assess protocols and procedures.”

Board members agreed they don’t know when students and staff will be ready to move to full in-person learning, but they’ll continue to monitor the situation and remain ready to review their decision. They did not name a specific date they would reevaluate their decision.

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