BATH — Bath’s elementary schools – Dike Newell School and Fisher Mitchell School – will resume full in-person learning next month for the first time since March.

The Regional School Unit 1 school board unanimously approved the change Monday. The schools hope to resume in-person learning on Jan. 11.

Principals of both schools said they still have some planning left to do to ensure students can follow state COVID-19 safety guidelines.

Dike-Newell School Principal Jennifer McKay and Fisher Mitchell School Principal Ross Berkowitz said they are challenged in how students will safely socially distance from one another.

McKay and Berkowitz have also hired additional staff and reassigned staff members to break larger classes into small groups, and ensuring no more than 50 students are in the cafeteria at one time.

Dike-Newell and Fisher-Mitchell School have 170 and 150 in-person students, respectively. The average class size at both schools is between 12 and 14 students.

Dike-Newell School teaches pre-kindergarten through second grade and Fisher-Mitchell School teaches third through fifth grade. RSU 1 includes Bath, Phippsburg, Arrowsic and Woolwich.

The two schools now adhere to a mixed in-person and online learning plan to mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19. Students attend school for two days, and conduct remote online learning for three days. RSU 1 continues to offer full distance learning as well.

Katie Joseph, RSU 1 assistant superintendent, said 227 students, or 13% of the district, have opted for full online learning so far this year.
The district has seen a slight increase in families choosing full remote learning, Joseph said, as more schools transition to full in-person learning. As of Monday, 17 more students have to participate in full distance learning beginning in January.

Dr. Amina Hanna, a pediatrician at Mid Coast Hospital who has been guiding RSU 1 through the reopening process, advocated for both schools to return to full in-person learning. She argued it’s “better for [students] academically and emotionally.”

“From an infection perspective, especially for these younger kids, if they’re not in school they may be going to daycare and be at risk in daycare,” Hannah said.

Sophia Inman, mother of a second-grader at Dike Newell School, echoed Hanna, adding she believes sending students back to school full-time is safer than the mixed in-person and online plan.

“The whole point of the hybrid plan is to reduce student interaction, but parents have to find other child care options for their kids,” said Inman. “This theory is flawed because we’re exposed to more people through the hybrid plan than we would be exposed to through the in-person plan.”

Some parents remain unsure of what education model is safest for students and faculty.

Jason and Sheila Lamontagne, parents of a Dike-Newell School student, want board members to consider how rising COVID-19 case numbers throughout the state could make full in-person learning risky.

“Our principal concern is that larger groups and the mixing of cohorts can only further promote community transmission,” they wrote to the board. “While full-time in-person learning has been a standing, admirable goal which requires tremendous logistical coordination and expense of resources, that effort and expense alone can’t justify the change to full-time in-person without considering the current state of COVID-19 in the community.”

While it’s possible for children to transmit and spread COVID-19, Hanna said children are usually exposed to COVID-19 through adults in their life rather than through other children in schools.

“Both in the United States and outside the United States, schools are generally not the drivers of increased rates in a given state or community,” Hanna said. “The drivers are really community spread outside schools and schools tend to reflect rates of community spread.”

Bath has seen relatively few COVID-19 cases since the COVID-19 pandemic reached Maine in March. The town of 11,031 residents has had 41 COVID-19 cases as of Tuesday, according to the Maine CDC.

Similarly, Sagadahoc County has seen 211 cases, 146 of which have recovered, and no deaths as of Tuesday, said the Maine CDC. Sagadahoc County has the third-fewest COVID-19 cases in the state, just above Lincoln and Piscataquis counties.

Meanwhile, however, Maine cases are spiking. State health officials reported another 411 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday and six additional deaths. The seven-day daily average of new cases stood at 388 on Tuesday, compared to 298 a week ago, 181 a month ago and 28 cases two months ago. In six of the last nine days, cases have topped 400, the Portland Press Herald reported.

Statewide cases have risen to 16,760. Of those, 10,614 have recovered but 265 have died as of Tuesday, the Maine CDC reported.

Dike-Newell and Fisher-Mitchell will follow the lead of Phippsburg Elementary School and Woolwich Central School, which returned to full-time in-person learning on Oct. 27 and Dec. 7, respectively.

Phippsburg Elementary School Principal Sandra Gorsuch-Plummer and Woolwich Central School Principal Jason Libby reported a smooth transition to full in-person learning.

“Some of our kids are coming back together and seeing friends they haven’t seen in six to seven months,” said Libby. “We spent some time reviewing procedures with students and they’ve done an excellent job with masks and responding to anything we asked them to do.”

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