Superintendent Geoff Bruno said administrators are asking the state to prioritize Falmouth teachers for vaccinations, which will help staffing shortages created by educators quarantining after exposure to COVID-19. Contributed / Falmouth School Department

FALMOUTH — Falmouth students could be spending more time in the classroom as early as March 10.

School administrators are working toward more in-person instruction for students after School Committee members and members of the public said prioritizing teachers for vaccinations “was not enough” to get students back in schools.

At a virtual meeting held Feb. 22, members of the School Committee unanimously approved both a resolution asking the state to prioritize teachers for vaccinations and a motion to ask administrators to formulate plans to increase “contact time” between students and teachers.

A meeting on the details is slated for March 1, with plans to start more live instruction by March 10.

Falmouth students now attend school in person two days a week and learn remotely Wednesdays and two other days. Conversations focused on having kids return to school Wednesdays, but the day of the week remained open in case school administrators find that other days work better.

“Why aren’t we going more outside the box,” School Committee member Jen Libby said. “We are in an emergency. We have families buckling.”

Superintendent Geoff Bruno said if the resolution is successful, early vaccinations for educators would allow schools to fully staff a return and “get the ball rolling” for getting students back in schools. It would also allow the school to lobby for looser restrictions around current 6-foot social distancing requirements and a lack of lunch space for more students, required quarantining for close contacts and other roadblocks for in-person instruction.

The administration hopes the resolution asking for teachers to be prioritized gets them in line for vaccinations that are rolling out from February to April under Phase 1b, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control.

The current round includes seniors in their 60s, people with high-risk conditions, and “critical frontline workers,” to which Falmouth wants Gov. Janet Mills and the Maine CDC to add Maine teachers.

Falmouth joins Brunswick, which approved the resolution last week.

According to Maine CDC, Falmouth has seen 485 cases of the coronavirus as of Feb. 14. According to the school department’s website, over 20 cases have been documented among faculty and students since the end of the last school year, with outbreaks verified by the CDC at the elementary school on Dec. 15 and the high school on Jan. 24.

According to the governor’s COVID-19 response page on maine.gov, only Mainers 70 and older are currently eligible for vaccination under Phase 1b. Those being considered as critical frontline workers are still being determined, but according to the governor’s page the following are proposed: food and agricultural workers, postal service employees, manufacturing workers, grocery store employees, those in public transit and “those who work in the education sector.”

According to the site, the state will review the list and make determinations “as the phase approaches.”

“I don’t think we should link needing vaccines to going back, but if we get it in the arms of teachers it clears up (staffing issues),” School Committee member Matt Pines said.

Bruno said a full return of students is not possible with the staffing shortages now being caused by quarantining. Teachers and other staff who are close contact with those who have tested positive for COVID-19 must quarantine for two weeks, but vaccinated teachers would not.

It’s not space. It’s staffing. We can find space but then we need a qualified teacher,” Bruno said.

Bruno did not return messages left before The Forecaster’s deadline about how critical the staffing issue is.

When asked how many vaccines would be needed to make the administration comfortable with the return of teachers, Steve Chabot, the principal for grades 3-5 at Falmouth Elementary School, said it wasn’t a specific number but rather the option of getting vaccinated that was important.

Backed by all six other school committee members, Libby said more needs to be done to increase in-person instruction.

Libby, a parent who is also a teacher at Scarborough Middle School, said the hybrid model “does not work” and is bad for students’ mental health.

“Kids in Falmouth are drinking, have work refusal. They are cheating,” Libby said. “What is academic honesty is out the window, especially when assessing at home. We have to do something.” 

Libby said the hybrid model also “favors the rich,” who can afford tutors, and the students should attend Wednesdays “at least.”

Bruno said Wednesdays are for professional development and planning time for instructors.

“I am a parent of two students and am a teacher at Freeport elementary. We have portable classrooms, kids eating in halls,” Aja Stephan said. “We need to do more like the other towns.”

Stephan was supported by 17 other residents.

The administration is drawing a line in the sand about the vaccination that if they (teachers) can’t get vaccinated they can’t get back into schools, and while I support the resolution I don’t want that to be seen as this getting let go,” parent Amanda Rand said.

Ray Fox, who teaches in Falmouth, was the sole voice for waiting until vaccines are available, and called for collaboration between the committee and teachers.

“I’m not feeling the love from this group,” Fox said. “I get that you’re frustrated. I’m a parent of two kids in another district; in my household this year we’ve dealt with six quarantines. It’s not just Falmouth.”

“Other school systems have two to three elementary schools in older buildings with larger rooms and some of these schools have 20-25% of students virtual, we only have 10%; it’s hard to compare us to other schools,” said Stacy White, the principal for kindergarten through second grade at Falmouth Elementary.

“We are working on figuring out how to have kids,” Chabot said. “I got a staff with someone who got COVID two months ago who hasn’t recovered, a staff member who has lost a parent. I don’t think it’s asking too much that our people get a shot to get vaccinated before we ask them (to have all students return).”

“We hear the urgency and are working on it,” he said.

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