BATH — A dearth of teachers and space is preventing Regional School Unit 1 from bringing middle and high school students to 100% in-person learning.

Principals of Morse High School, Woolwich Central School and Bath Middle School said if all students came back to school full time, they’d need to break up larger classes to allow students space to distance themselves. Each principal would then need more space and teachers for the new groups of students to mitigate the potential transmission of COVID-19, per the Maine Department of Education’s health and safety requirements.

However, finding more teachers is easier said than done. Patrick Manuel, RSU 1 superintendent, said the district has been advertising multiple open teaching positions for the last month with only one applicant with no prior teaching experience.

Brandon Ward, Bath Middle School principal, said he needs to hire six new teachers before he’s ready to welcome all students back to full in-person learning, but he’s competing against other school districts and schools within RSU 1 for those additional teachers he needs.

“We have already created a couple new classroom spaces and I think with utilizing our library and cafeteria, we can fit all our students in a 100% return,” Ward told the school board Monday. “We need about six new staff … If we’re able to get those positions, we’d feel pretty comfortable being able to move to a full return, I just don’t know how likely that is.”

Jason Libby, Woolwich Central School principal, said he would need to break up his sixth and eighth-grade classes, which have 34 and 36 students, respectively. While he said he thinks he can find space to relocate those smaller groups, he would need at least two new teachers.

Eric Varney, Morse High School principal, said finding enough space while moving into the new Morse High School is his biggest barrier to opening full time.

“We’re a bit more complicated at the high school because we shuffle the deck four times a day,” said Varney. “During period one, I would have eight classes that wouldn’t be able to fit into their rooms, 14 in period two, 10 during period three and nine during period four.”

While other schools grapple with space and staff limitations, Julie Kenny, Bath Regional Career & Technical Center director, said she’s prepared to bring all her students back to in-person learning four days per week beginning March 15.

“Bath Tech is really fortunate to not face some of the challenges and barriers of the other schools,” said Kenny. “Our student capacity is only 16 students due to the nature of our program. In this new building … we can certainly fit eight students in the classroom and eight in the shop. Or, all students can easily fit in the shop in some capacity or at a job site.”

Kenny said students will only return to in-person learning four days each week because that’s what the current transportation schedule allows. Keeping Wednesday as a remote learning day also gives teachers the opportunity to create lessons for remote-only students.

While administrators are searching for new staff and space solutions, middle and high school principals are looking into expanding how many students are able to get additional in-person instruction on Wednesdays.

Libby said he has the space and resources to begin offering “alternating Wednesdays” for students within a few weeks. Every other week students would have three days of in-person learning instead of two.

“The alternating Wednesday option is not going to be as much as we all want, but it will take positive steps toward increasing time, addressing some of those mental health worries, and gives us another opportunity to connect with students,” said Libby.

Libby said 11 students come into school each Wednesday for additional time with their teacher.

At Bath Middle School, Ward said teachers can select students who they believe would benefit from coming into school on Wednesdays for additional in-person help, a method that has proved “enormously successful” for some struggling students. About 50 students come into school each week, Ward said.

Rather than implement alternating Wednesdays for all students, which would bar struggling students from the additional in-person instruction they need, Ward said he’s looking to expand how many students the school is able to accommodate each Wednesday.

Meanwhile, at Morse High School, Varney said any student has the ability to sign up for additional in-person instruction on Wednesday, a plan he wants to keep in place. Between 100-150 students “of all stripes” take the school up on the offer each week, said Varney.

“I have major concerns at the high school level about flipping this and then students are, at best, able to come in twice a month whereas right now, we’re opening the doors to anyone who wants to come in to work with teachers,” said Varney.

Instead, Varney is exploring the possibility of opening a “distance learning hub” — a warm place with wifi and a few adult mentors — where students can go to complete their online learning with peers. Varney said the old Morse High School on High Street in Bath could serve as the school’s temporary distance learning hub.

While this is an idea Varney is exploring, he said a distance learning hub still comes with the same challenge of finding five to six staff members to work with students.

Morse High School, Bath Middle School and Woolwich Central School’s middle schoolers are following a part-time in-person and remote learning plan. Students have been split into two groups that have in-person instruction for two days each week.

Phippsburg Elementary School, Dike Newell School, Fisher Mitchell School, and Woolwich Central School grades pre-kindergarten through fifth grade have all returned to full in-person learning.

RSU 1 serves Bath, Phippsburg, Arrowsic and Woolwich. The district has reported 19 total COVID-19 cases across all six schools, according to the district’s website.

Four RSU 1 parents offered public comment Monday, all in favor of offering middle and high school students full in-person learning.

“The toll that this is taking on their mental health is astounding,” wrote RSU 1 parent Jillian Vaillancourt. “I am continuing to witness my outgoing 12-year-old become more and more isolated. I am hearing him talk of many of his friends experiencing depression – this is not ok.”

“The mental health of our middle and high school students has deteriorated greatly and that’s now becoming as great if not more of a threat as COVID-19,” said Hallie Johnston, parent of a Woolwich Central School sixth grader. “To be safe does not mean only COVID-free.”

Regardless of what plan school administrators are looking into, Libby, Ward and Varney all agreed full in-person instruction is best for both for students’ academic progress and mental health.

“We all feel as educators that we can work with the academic gaps that exist as a result of this pandemic, but it doesn’t feel like there’s a lot we can do to help the students that we know are struggling with isolation and depression,” said Ward.

“I certainly feel (full in-person learning) is far superior than what we’ve been able to offer, but I do need to give the reality of the situation,” said Varney.


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