Superintendent Geoff Bruno presents plans to have students return to in-person instruction on Wednesdays. Screen shot / Zoom

FALMOUTH— Officials presented conceptual plans for students to return to school on Wednesdays, but some Falmouth teachers made it clear they are not happy about it.

The proposal, which has not been finalized, calls for high and middle school students to alternate Wednesdays in person. Elementary students, who attend half days every day but Wednesday, would attend school daily, with half of the students going in the morning and the other half in the afternoon.

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

At a March 1 School Committee meeting, around eight teachers spoke against in-person instruction on Wednesdays, saying it will cut into needed prep time, one-on-one time with students and opportunities for special education faculty to meet with families.

Teachers gave their impact about removing remote-only learning on Wednesday, but there were no public comments or questions from committee members at the meeting.

“This time provides a lot of things – ability to manage to schedule for remote students, working on plans with ELL (English Language Learner) students; we do work with remote students then. Wednesdays are important for us,” Mark Campbell, a high school special education teacher said.

Calls for increased in-person instruction came at a Feb. 22 meeting, where parents and the committee said banking on vaccines for teachers to get more kids learning in person was not enough.

“We’ve since heard from parents and teachers criticizing the decision, but the board has received a letter signed by several hundred parents for a full return K-12,” School Board Chairperson Whitney Bruce said at the March 1 meeting. The district includes roughly 2,100 students.

While public conversations haven’t focused on a full return of all students, Superintendent Geoff Bruno said previously that a full return will not be possible until the CDC reconsiders social distancing and quarantine guidelines that create holes in staffing. Bruno has previously said staffing is the major issue with a full return, as teachers must quarantine after coming in close contact with those who have been exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19.

“We are still looking at ways to increase in-person learning time by modifying hybrid (learning),” Bruno said.

Teachers argued that removing Wednesday from the virtual learning schedule does more harm than good.

“Wednesdays are when I make materials to keep my students engaged, like videos online,” middle school French teacher Michelle Fournier said.

Elementary School Learning Strategist Sarah Hess said: “This process of looking at Wednesdays really made us realize how crucial they were.”

School officials say that more than 200 student support sessions take place on Wednesdays, from ELL to special education, and substitutes may be needed to cover classes while teachers continue to meet with students for planning purposes on Wednesdays.

I fear we will gain little and lose much,” middle school math teacher Sean Towle said.

Educators said Wednesday is the only time students with different scheduling ever interact, and the maskless learning time is important for young students.

Fournier, also a parent of a student, said she and her colleagues are already stressed to the breaking point and Wednesdays are crucial for their mental health.

Disrupting a system we have spent a whole year improving serves no one,” she said. “The costs do not outweigh the benefits of change. Kids can’t thrive if teachers are at breaking points.”

The School Committee is deliberating over the plan and more in-person instruction could be held on other days.

The School Committee said it could make in-person classes on Wednesdays fit while working to improve other aspects of the hybrid model until guidelines will allow a full return.

We are not stuck in a fixed hybrid model that hasn’t improved,” Director of Learning Gretchen McNulty said.

School principals said since remote learning started in the fall they’ve added additional online counseling hours, online unified arts courses, created a program that has high schoolers reading to elementary students, set up an elementary daycare with Falmouth Community Program and teams to identify and deal with student mental health.

Steve Chabot, elementary school principal for grades 3-5, said administrators are also working to reduce the eight-student waiting list for the daycare program, which supports 72 families.

“I will personally contact those families this week to problem solve and work that out. (Elementary co-principal) Stacy White and I also are working on supporting more families with finding something reliable to dovetail with the hybrid model in short term,” Chabot said.

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.

This story has been corrected to reflect that the plan for in-person classes on Wednesdays is not final and several hundred parents signed the petition.

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