TOPSHAM — A Maine School Administrative District 75 school board member expressed frustration Thursday that the district isn’t getting students back into classrooms full-time more quickly.

While MSAD 75, which serves Bowdoin, Bowdoinham, Harpswell and Topsham, split its students into two cohorts who attend school separately two days per week and spend the remainder of the week learning from home. The district also gave students the option of full-time remote learning.

The school department started its “feather-in” approach in early December, allowing students in Kindergarten and first grade to return to school four days a week. Superintendent Shawn Chabot said second and third graders will start four days of in-person instruction on Jan. 19.

The district still needs to hire four teachers to bring grades 4 and 5 back four days a week. The school board voted to have both groups of students at Mt. Ararat Middle School return to school on alternating Wednesdays.

By a 8-5 vote, the board defeated a motion by board member Eric Lusk to fully reopen Harpswell Community School to in-person learning by Feb. 1. Lusk said kids aren’t connecting directly with teachers on days they learn remotely from home.

“Maybe we should get open what we can, when we can, and not wait for the search for perfection to become an enemy of the good because there’s also a mental health crisis coming,” Lusk said. “I’d like to have fewer kids fall behind academically and I’d really like to have as few kids as possible dealing with the mental stress, loneliness etc., that is afflicting these kids as we wait to figure out if we have the perfect reopening scenario waiting for them.”

School board member Kim Totten supported continuing with the district’s gradual transition to in-person learning.

“The reason we’ve been doing this in a phased approach and administration has been testing it out slow is to make sure that we’re not dumping kids into the system and then all of a sudden having to yank them back again,” Totten said. “Those multiple changes back and forth are just as harmful as keeping them out.”

MSAD 75 pushes on with its feather-in approach despite Maine seeing record-breaking numbers of COVID-19 cases. With the 340 additional cases reported Sunday, Maine’s seven-day rolling average stood at 611 new infections daily compared to an average of 530 new cases daily one week ago and more than triple the seven-day average reported in early December, the Portland Press Herald reported.

As of Saturday, the rate of new COVID-19 cases in Sagadahoc County was 172.3 per 10,000 people compared to 250.7 cases per 10,000 people statewide, according to the Maine CDC. There had been 33,559 accumulative COVID-19 cases in Maine and 614 cases in Sagadahoc County as of Sunday.

The Maine Department of Education still deems the risk of COVID-19 transmission low enough in Sagadahoc County to do in-person learning as long as it follows mask-wearing, social distancing and other required safety measures.

MSAD 75 school board chair Rachelle Tome said Friday that while the district has had to quarantine students and staff due to COVID-19 exposure in the school, those instances haven’t been as widespread as some surrounding schools have experienced because the community has done well following safety precautions.

“While‌ ‌I‌ ‌know‌ ‌the‌ ‌feather‌-‌in‌ ‌is‌ ‌not as‌ ‌quick‌ ‌or‌ ‌expedient‌ ‌as‌ ‌some‌ ‌people‌ ‌might‌ ‌like,‌ ‌that’s‌ ‌how‌ ‌we’re‌ ‌trying‌ ‌to‌ ‌address‌ ‌that‌ ‌safety‌ ‌concerns‌ ‌because‌ ‌by‌ ‌allowing‌ ‌the‌ ‌schools ‌to‌ ‌adjust‌ ‌to‌ ‌those‌ ‌increases‌ ‌in‌ ‌population ‌and‌ ‌see‌ ‌if‌ ‌there’s‌ ‌any‌ ‌negative‌ ‌impact,‌ ‌then‌ ‌that‌ ‌allows‌ ‌us‌ ‌to‌ ‌move‌ ‌forward‌ ‌at‌ ‌a‌ ‌more‌ ‌positive‌ ‌pace,” Tome said.

As COVID-19 cases continue to increase, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and Maine CDC continue to review evidence that indicates lower transmission of COVID-19 in schools compared to the general population, according to Maine CDC spokesman Robert Long.

“Over the last 30 days, the rate of new cases is 27 per 10,000 staff and students, compared to 113 per 10,000 people statewide,” Long stated in an email Friday. “This rate of new cases in schools is 24% of the statewide rate for the general population. Maine CDC continues to work with the Maine Department of Education to provide tools that local school districts can use to make decisions about the impact of COVID-19 on their communities.”


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