Third-graders at Mabel I. Wilson School in Cumberland Center eat lunch at their spaced-apart desks in the classroom on Thursday. Even with teachers becoming vaccinated, increasing in-person learning will be a challenge for schools because many don’t have enough space to keep an increased number of students safely distanced from one another. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Maine schools received good news this month when the state announced it would be prioritizing educators for coronavirus vaccines. But as the effort gets underway, new challenges have emerged at the forefront of the push to get more students back in classrooms.

The largest of those is the state’s physical distancing requirements, which ask schools to maintain 6 feet of distance between adults and others. Students must maintain at least 3 feet of distance except during mealtimes, when unmasked students must be kept 6 feet apart.

“Just because everyone is vaccinated we can’t just be rushing back and have the expectation that those spacing requirements are going to change overnight,” said Steve Bailey, executive director of the Maine School Management Association and Maine School Boards Association. “They haven’t yet, and until they do that will be a large problem for districts.”

While some schools across the state have been able to offer students five days a week of in-person learning during the pandemic, many are continuing to operate in hybrid models. Other challenges to adding more in-person time include how long it will now take to vaccinate educators, schedule changes close to the end of the year and the fact schools are still seeing coronavirus cases and outbreaks.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has raised concerns about adequate ventilation in schools, which may still be a factor in some buildings. However, many Maine schools used coronavirus relief funds to address ventilation issues earlier in the school year.

Meanwhile, parents are growing increasingly frustrated with a lack of additional in-person opportunities. They’ve formed Facebook groups, launched petitions and written to the governor asking for help.

“With vaccines coming we kind of thought, ‘Oh, great. This is a turning point. We’re going to get our kids back,'” said Julie Soucie, an administrator of the Facebook group BackTo5, which aims to get Maine children back to school five days per week, and the mother of an eighth-grader at Greely Middle School in Cumberland. “It seems like each time something happens, the goal posts are moved.”

‘I DON’T HAVE ENOUGH PHYSICAL SPACE’

In Gray-based School Administrative District 15, physical spacing, particularly during lunchtime, is the biggest barrier to being able to increase in-person learning, said Director of Curriculum and Staff Development Chanda Turner. Most students in SAD 15 are currently in-person two days a week and the district is looking at increasing in-person time for small groups of high-needs students.

“When they’re in the classroom we can put them as close as three feet but they have to be wearing a mask,” Turner said. “When you feed them, they take their mask off so they have to be six feet apart, and I don’t have enough physical space in my buildings to put six feet between children when we feed them. That is frankly our biggest challenge when you take vaccinations off the board.”

Elementary and middle school students in SAD 15 eat lunch in their classrooms spaced 6 feet apart while high school students spread out in the cafeteria, gym and auxiliary gym for meals. If the district were to bring more students back in-person and find additional spaces, such as the elementary school cafeterias, where they could eat, that would present a staffing challenge.

“I still only have one teacher for them,” Turner said. “So you would need a second adult to now be supervising the other half of the class someplace else, not to mention that’s also another adult now being exposed to the children. If we’re vaccinating that’s OK, but if we’re not it’s harder. It’s complex to say the least.”

That challenge is playing out in districts across the state, according to Bailey, who said availability of space within a building or access to additional building space can be hard to come by. “Once and if space is available, the issue is how to find enough competent staff to hire to teach additional sections of students. So there are dominos that are restrictive challenges,” he said.

REQUIREMENTS TIED TO LOW CASES

Maine has no plans to change the distancing requirements in the state’s framework for returning to in-person instruction. But the state will consider adjustments if the U.S. CDC recommends lifting public health protocols such as minimum space between desks, Maine Department of Education spokeswoman Kelli Deveaux said in an email.

Third graders at Mabel I. Wilson school in Cumberland Center eat lunch at their spaced-apart desks in their classroom as Ed Tech Margaret McDevitt washes her hands on Thursday. Even with teachers becoming vaccinated, increasing in-person learning will be a challenge for schools because many don’t have enough space to keep an increased number of students safely distanced from each other. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“The requirements were informed by guidance from the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics,” Deveaux said. “As a result of these measures, the new case rates for Maine schools has been significantly and consistently lower than that of the general population.”

The new case rate for school staff and students in Maine is 22 per 10,000, which is 35 percent lower than the new case rate of 34 per 10,000 for the general population. As of Thursday, there were 481 cases among students and staff in Maine schools in the last 30 days and more than 40 open outbreak investigations.

“We all want our students to return as soon as possible to a more typical schedule,” wrote Jeff Porter, superintendent in Cumberland-based School Administrative District 51, in a letter to the community last week. “But this must be done thoughtfully and safely and not in ways that could close our schools for extended periods of time. We are still living in a dire health emergency.”

SAD 51 has struggled all year with high case numbers. Porter said he worries about transmission to and among non-vaccinated students, but physical spacing is the biggest challenge. “What really makes our decision on having kids come back full time is whether the state Department of Education and CDC relax that three- to six-foot guidance,” Porter said in an interview. “That’s the line in the sand. You can’t cross it if it’s there. There’s just no way to get around it. If that is relaxed, we can really start looking ahead to being in green.”

SAD 51 is using 3 feet of distance between students in most classes. Students eat lunch in their classrooms and spread out to corners of the room and even in hallways to achieve 6 feet of distance. “We get creative with the lunch piece and spreading kids out,” Porter said. “But you can’t do that all day long. It’s only the time that they’re eating.”

Maine’s spacing requirements are more flexible than those of the federal CDC, which recommends 6 feet of distance between students in classrooms. The state says that guidance was developed in part to help states that are not as far along in reopening schools and that the guidelines in place in Maine have worked to date. Some schools have chosen to stick with 6 feet of distance, however, especially among older students who may be more likely to transmit the disease.

In Portland, for example, a memorandum of understanding between the district and its teachers’ union forged at the start of the school year requires 6 feet of distance between students at middle and high schools. “Our high school buildings are older than most surrounding high schools and many of our classrooms are not large enough to accommodate the necessary six feet of physical distance between students,” the district wrote in a Q&A about in-person learning for high school students earlier this month.

Other challenges include staff members with health accommodations that keep them from being in person and students who may not be able to return to in-person classes because of health concerns or work obligations.

Carrie Foster, president of the Portland Education Association, said vaccinations should help reduce the number of staff who need to quarantine and may change the circumstances of accommodations.

“As far as CDC guidance, we’ve been committed to following those from the beginning,” Foster said in an email. “Our members are cognizant that the very reason our schools have been relatively safe is that we’ve worked really hard to adhere to the six requirements, especially masking and distancing. We’re dedicated to working with the district to find ways to increase in-person options for students, and we want our students and families to know that doing it safely for everyone involved is paramount.”

‘WE’RE AT A BREAKING POINT’

Parents, meanwhile, are growing anxious for more in-person learning. “I would say we’re at a breaking point right now with a mental health crisis, not just in our own state, but across the country, so if offering a little bit of flexibility in one of six requirements so more children can become healthier and happier and get more access to the resources they need, it’s worth it,” said Shikha Vasaiwala, the mother of a first- and fourth-grader at Falmouth Elementary School.

Vasaiwala started a petition this month calling on the state to revise the physical distancing requirements after discussions started in her own district about adding more in-person time. As of Friday more than 1,600 people had signed.

“I am not an expert,” Vasaiwala said. “I’m making a recommendation as to what a revision could be. My biggest point is please re-evaluate the six feet (between adults and students) and allow adults to be within three feet of children, and if you need to do due diligence, look at other states.”

In Massachusetts, where state officials have said elementary schools must reopen full time by April 5 and middle schools by April 28, the guidance is similar to Maine’s with a requirement of at least 3 feet of space between desks and a strict 6 feet of distance at meals. Officials in Vermont said last month their goal was a full in-person reopening in April. Current guidance calls for 3 feet between students in grades pre-K through six and 6 feet between older students.

When asked whether schools in Massachusetts are also encountering challenges with physical spacing, a spokeswoman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said only that districts cannot apply for waivers for space constraints caused by using more than 3 feet of space between desks. She also said the department is willing to help school officials figure out the best way to configure their classrooms and other areas.

Kate Hopkins, whose daughter is in fourth grade in South Portland, was dismayed when the superintendent said last week the district has no immediate plans to increase in-person learning. Hopkins’ daughter attends two days per week in-person currently. Remote days offer at best a short time for her daughter to check in with her teacher online and then complete assignments on her own.

As student Amelia Wentling, left, washes her hands, Margaret McDevitt, an ed tech at Mabel I. Wilson school in Cumberland Center, talks to third grade students as they eat lunch at their spaced-apart desks in their classroom on Thursday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“We’re making it work, but this is not the way school should be,” said Hopkins, who said she would like to see a return to five days per week of in-person learning before the end of the school year.

TIMELINES & TRADE-OFFS

Questions also remain about how long it will take for school staff to be fully vaccinated. In Yarmouth, where most students are attending in-person two days per week, Superintendent Andrew Dolloff said it is difficult for staff members under the age of 60 – the cutoff for age-based eligibility under current state guidelines – to get scheduled for their first shot.

“Recognizing that a person is not fully vaccinated until 14 days after their second shot, it doesn’t appear likely that the majority of staff will be at that point until sometime in May at the earliest,” Dolloff said in an email. “That’s not a show-stopper, and we’re looking at every possibility for safely increasing in-person learning, but it’s not accurate to believe that teachers would all be fully vaccinated in a week or two once the President and the Governor prioritized educators.”

Turner, the curriculum director in Gray, also said timelines remains a concern. Some families in SAD 15 have been asking about the possibility of students attending school on Wednesdays, which are districtwide remote days, or extending the length of the school day, but those options come with trade-offs.

“We talked about trying to extend the school day a little bit, but it only adds 19 hours between now and the end of the year,” Turner said. “That’s probably not worth it given the major issues we would have to solve to get there. So a lot of it is going to come down to the timing. What is the timing under which we could solve the lunch issue? What is the timing under which we can get staff immunity?”

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: