PHIPPSBURG — Phippsburg Elementary School, serving pre-kindergarten through fifth-graders, will resume full-time in-person learning on Monday, Oct. 26.

The Regional School Unit 1 Board of Directors unanimously approved the change on Tuesday. Students who have elected all-distance learning at the start of the year will remain in that plan.

Phippsburg Elementary School Principal Sandra Gorsuch-Plummer said students, parents and teachers feel comfortable allowing the full student body back in school because it’s a fraction of the size of the district’s other elementary schools.

Phippsburg Elementary School enrolls just 84 students. Its largest class is 17 students, which stills allow them to follow distancing requirements from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, according to Assistant Superintendent Katie Joseph.

Dike Newell and Fisher Mitchell school have 226 and 209 students, respectively. Woolwich Central School has 193 pre-k through fifth-grade students.

“I think Phippsburg will give us an opportunity to get a little more experience with kids in 100% enrollment in class and hopefully this helps us, in a very measurable and concrete way, understand what the limitations and needs are in our other buildings,” said Stephen August, school board chairperson.

The district’s four elementary schools have followed a mixed in-person learning plan to mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19 since the school year began. Students attend school for two days, then conduct remote online learning for the remaining three days.

A step in the right direction

The RSU 1 school board also authorized Superintendent Patrick Manuel to hire additional staff, who could help break up larger classes into smaller groups that could be spread out throughout the schools.

While Manuel hesitated to say this would allow schools to open full-time, he and elementary school principals agreed hiring additional staff could be the first step in “a domino effect” that may eventually allow schools to open their doors full-time.

“It’s not just the hiring of the additional staff, it’s all the other things that need to shift,” said Jennifer McKay, Dike Newell School principal. “Getting a storage pod, moving furniture, moving programs, opening up a new classroom, reassigning students, figuring out how to creatively approach snack, water and mask breaks because we don’t have the ability to distance students six feet apart from each other in all of our classrooms.”

The school board maintains its ultimate goal is to open all schools full-time, but RSU 1 parents and staff still disagree over whether that’s the safest option for students and staff.

RSU 1 administration sent nearly identical surveys to pre-k through fifth-grade parents and staff. Of the 422 parents that responded to the survey, 77%, or 325 parents, said they’d feel safe sending their child back to school if it opened for full-time, in-person learning.

However, of the 110 RSU 1 staff who responded, just 36%, or 40 staff members, said they felt they’d be able to keep their students safe by following all safety procedures if full-time, in-person learning resumed.

Most teachers and principals agree their main problem is keeping students spaced out, especially when eating and during transitions and mask breaks throughout the day.

Linda Styles, an RSU 1 parent and ed tech at Dike Newell School, wrote to the board saying she wouldn’t feel safe with all the students back in the classroom, especially during snack time “when there are times with and without masks, when students need help opening a snack, then help with a zipper, a tied shoe, a water bottle they can’t open, etc.”

“We have to wash our hands between helping each of these students,” she wrote. “It takes a great deal of time. Moments like passing out papers, or materials, or assisting students with computer trouble, all require close contact. At full capacity, each task will take even longer, exposing staff and students to more and more germs.”

Most RSU 1 parents said they believe their child would learn more effectively if they were in school full-time.

Deborah Nguyen, an RSU 1 parent with children in first and third grade, said her third-grader has adapted to online learning, but she has noticed gaps in her first grader’s education.

“I feel the youngest students need the most in-person instruction as social learning and the importance of a teacher being the instructor is invaluable the younger the students are,” she said. “I have two very bright students but my younger one is not where she should be in reading or math as pockets are missing.”

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