FREEPORT — Regional School Unit 5 officials opted not move into a fully “green” plan, bringing all kids back for full in-person learning, but instead plan to bring kindergarten through fifth-grade students back in the classroom five days per week in a model that Superintendent Becky Foley is calling “hybrid-plus.” 

The model is Foley’s proposed solution, a sort of middle-ground option to get students back in the classroom without moving fully into a “green” model of instruction that will bring everyone back. Regional School Unit 5 draws students from Freeport, Durham and Pownal, and currently has an enrollment of 1,950. About 10% of the student population opted for full remote learning for the first half of the year. 

In this new plan, elementary-aged students will have the option for some form of five days per week, in-person instruction, but the methods will vary. 

For middle and high school students, the current hybrid plan will stay in effect, just with an increase of synchronous or “live” learning opportunities on the remote learning days, so that students and teachers can be connected and engaged even when not in the classroom. The district piloted several synchronous classes at the start of the year, with positive results, so Foley said she hopes to have the classes fully synchronous within the next few weeks. 

While the goal since August has been to bring students back this month, Foley said that with the current space constraints of the schools and needing to keep kids at least 3 feet apart, bringing everyone back was not an option. 

“I don’t feel like we can fully return to a green model at this point,” she said, adding that it’s important to keep students and teachers safe while maintaining a quality level of instruction. 

“We cannot do this if we return all kids to every class,” Foley said.  

So far, the yellow or hybrid model has been going “very well,” and despite five cases of the virus in late September, the district has not experienced any outbreaks.

Andrew Morrissey, a junior at Freeport High School, asked board members not to support a green plan, calling it “reckless, irresponsible and unfeasible.” 

It’s a higher risk for teachers, many of whom are already nervous, and will punch a hole in the budget with increased supplies and cleaning times for staff, Morrissey argued. 

Continuing the yellow or hybrid plan is the “best balance between risk and reward,” that is safe and effective while providing the best education for students, he said. 

Brady Grogan, the student representative on the school board, cautioned against too much synchronous learning for older pupils, as it keeps students on screens all day, which can be draining. It also tethers teachers and students at school to the building where the wifi works, instead of encouraging them to use outdoor learning spaces. 

Geoffrey Dyhrberg, a teacher at the high school, asked the board of directors to consider the feasibility of moving toward green. 

“When I look at those plans… on paper they all seem reasonable,” he said. “The reality in the classroom is really different, the reality in the hallways is really different.” 

A decision should not be based on what the plans look like on paper, but what they look like in action with “living, breathing human beings not necessarily doing what the plan on paper stays they should be doing.” 

No matter the plan, he added that she is “super happy to be back in the building with kids.”

“School without kids is no fun,” he said, so “I’m hoping we can stay in school with kids all year long.” 

“Hybrid-plus”

In this “hybrid-plus”  model, which Foley said is already underway, the district is bringing its highest-need elementary-level students, those who may need an “educational boost” due to learning loss over the last six months, back for full-time instruction first. 

Once those students are identified and situated, officials will start bringing other classes back, hopefully as soon as November. Because of its small size, with only 104 students total, counting those learning remotely, Foley estimated that Pownal Elementary may be able to return fully. 

Typical class sizes in RSU 5 pre-pandemic ranged from 16 to 22 students, but administration is recommending no more than 15 students per class in the new model (exact numbers will depend on the individual classroom). This will allow teachers to maintain the integrity of their instructional model, such as keeping a rug for morning meetings or tables instead of individual desks, Foley said, while still keeping proper spacing. 

For classes that have more than 15 students or more than the classroom can responsibly hold, families will have the option of an “alternative learning experience” in which students will be out of the house five days per week, but on their remote learning days, they might be learning about science at Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment, engaging in programs with Durham Community Services or learning in one of two portable classrooms expected at Morse Street School and Durham Community School. This option is elective, and the details and partnerships will be worked out over the next few weeks, Foley said. 

Families also have the option to stay with the current hybrid model, in which students are grouped in two cohorts, one attending school in-person on Mondays and Wednesdays, the other on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The cohorts alternate Fridays. 

It is unclear how many students will need to or choose to be in the “alternative learning experience” but students will be prioritized based on need and asked back in that order. 

This model will impact an estimated 729 students. There are 810 students enrolled in Kindergarten through fifth grade classrooms at the district’s four elementary schools, Morse Street School and Mast Landing School, Pownal Elementary and Durham Community School, which is K-8. Of those, 81 are fully remote.

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