Some parents in RSU 21 are voicing frustration with what they see as a lack of communication and transparency by the superintendent and school board. School officials say they understand parents are frustrated with remote learning, have increased communication and are planning for five days of in school instruction in the fall. Tammy Wells Photo

KENNEBUNK – A group of RSU 21 parents are looking for answers after nearly a school year of split weeks of remote and in-school learning and what they say is a lack of communication and transparency in the process for returning students to the classroom, and in general.

Students in RSU 21 have been in a hybrid program, which provides for two days of in-school instruction weekly, with the remainder remote, since the fall of 2020.
The entire RSU 21 community was poised to receive information about the return to school on Monday, when Superintendent Terri Cooper was to roll out the fall plan for in-classroom learning five days a week. A wide-spread internet failure throughout much of Maine and the region early in the evening prompted postponement of the meeting.
The meeting was also to have featured a public forum on the proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

School board chair Art LeBlanc on Monday evening said the board would likely convene sometime this week. A decision on the time had not been made as of the Post’s print deadline.

About half a dozen parents outlined their concerns with a reporter last week, concerns that ranged from frustration with remote learning and what they saw as lack of flexibility when in-classroom days were assigned; email to the superintendent and school board, the parents said, was ignored; a denial of more classroom time in specific cases where a child is struggling and the decision to continue with remote learning this school year made without scientific data and when other districts are adding days.

The parents said they are concerned their voices aren’t being heard.

Cooper said she recognizes this is a difficult time for families and that the district is following CDC guidelines, Maine Department of Education and Maine Department of Health and Human Services guidelines.

Cooper said while she couldn’t speak to specific emails, “I do work to respond to our parents and be transparent in my communication,” she said. “I recognize this is a challenging time for our families.”

Parents said when they have asked why RSU 21 wasn’t having more in-classroom learning this spring, when other districts have managed to do so, they say they were told the district doesn’t compare itself to others.

Parent Shannon Tracy said she had asked for her children to be put into the Thursday, Friday group for in-classroom instruction last fall, because her husband usually travels for work on those days.

“We heard crickets,” said Tracy, who said she had approached the superintendent, the assistant superintendent and the school board about the matter.

Another parent said she sent a letter in November, asking for a workshop, committee or group to work with parents on looking at how to open more days, and said she received no reply.

Parent Charles Chaponis, a resident who teaches high school in a neighboring district, said communication “has been terrible.” He said an email to the school board earlier in the school year didn’t result in a reply. He said he did receive a “matter-of-fact reply” from Cooper on another matter.

“These kids have lost their connection,” said Rebecca Podsiadlo, who has two children at RSU 21. “As a parent it is hard to see your kids are hurting and there’s nothing you can do.”

Another parent spoke of asking that her child be able to see a counselor on remote days, but was told the child couldn’t enter the school building because students from another cohort were learning inside.

Tracy, a social worker in a nearby district, said she and others were told by school administration where she works to “get creative,” and so has been meeting with students at their homes, or talking outside the school building on the sidewalk.

Another parent said she and her husband both work and have hired someone to help their children with homework, but knows that isn’t an option for some families.

“Kids are falling behind,” she said.

Chaponis said he feels like the school board doesn’t realize the impact on families when children aren’t in the classroom and having to juggle work schedules and teaching their children.

“A little bit of transparency would go a long way,” said Chaponis.

“I recognize this is hard, and the fact parents need to get back to work and have some semblance of normalcy; it is concern we are experiencing across the county,” said Cooper in a telephone interview on Monday. The superintendent said she has increased communication with families, and said the district has been diligent in focusing on making sure students are safe.

“One thing parents want to make sure of when they send their children to school, they are in a safe place,” said Cooper.

The school district announced on March 31 that due to the number of staff and students currently identified as close contacts, Middle School of the Kennebunks would be on full remote learning April 1 through April 9.

The district noted there were three additional cases of COVID-19 in the district – at the m iddle school, where 43 staff members and students were identified as close contacts, and a third at the high school, where there were 31 staff and students identified as close contacts. A third case was at Kennebunk Elementary school, where the child not been in class March 23, and so there were no close contacts.

Cooper said the plan for five-days-a-week in person instruction in the fall, among other details, would be forthcoming.

LeBlanc, the school board chair, said he responds to emails and letters – keeping a list and checking them off as he does so. He said there are times a parent receives an answer they disagree with, and he said he has missed letters and acknowledges when he has done so.

LeBlanc said he believes the current board is very transparent.

“If someone asks for specific information, we deliver it,” LeBlanc said. As to remote learning and a return to school, LeBlanc said nothing has been hidden.

LeBlanc said parents in the district would hear details of the return to school when the postponed meeting is rescheduled.

“We do understand the frustration, their frustration,” he said. “I’ve spoken with other board chairs and we’re all facing the same things – people want to know how their children are going to get back to school.”

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