A student enters an art classroom at Buxton Center Elementary School on Friday. School officials are currently making plans to accommodate all students in-person five days a week in the fall. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

After a year of hybrid learning, quarantines and following COVID-19 rules, Maine schools are planning for a return to fall classes that will look a lot more normal.

September is still a few months away and changes are possible depending on the trajectory of the coronavirus and state and federal guidance, but many school leaders are planning for a full return to in-person learning.

“Short of anything happening at the state level, we’re moving forward with the five-day-per-week plan,” said  Superintendent Paul Penna of School Administrative District 6 in the Buxton area. “We’ve purchased tents. We’re hiring more teachers. We’ve purchased portables. We’re well on our way.”

Most Maine schools have offered students in-person or hybrid learning all year, but the state hasn’t moved as quickly as some others to bring all students back full time. Massachusetts, for example, required all K-12 schools to return to full in-person learning this spring while Maine has left decisions up to individual school districts. Some have stuck with just two or three days of in-person learning per week.

Now, as school districts around the country are starting to release fall plans, many in Maine say they too are anticipating getting back to five days in person, though some pandemic rules and requirements might still be in place. The Maine departments of Education and Health and Human Services are working on health and safety guidelines for the fall and are hoping their protocols, paired with widespread vaccinations in Maine, will help schools to offer a full return.

Art teacher Octavia Stevens maneuvers her supply cart to her next classroom at Buxton Center Elementary School on Friday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“Schools, including the staff, students and their families, are eager to return to a more traditionally structured school day and calendar, and we remain committed to providing the resources and information to assist them in doing this safely,” said Kelli Deveaux, a spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Education. “The additional strategies of vaccination for those 12 and older and pooled testing in schools for early detection are certainly promising for the 2021-2022 school year.”

A move to full in-person learning could be welcome news for many families whose work schedules have been disrupted by hybrid school, but plans for the fall also raise questions about student safety, especially without a vaccine available for children under 12 and with several districts planning to eliminate or scale back remote options.

“We’re psyched about it,” said Ben Welch, whose children Emerson and Bear are in third and first grades at Brown Elementary School in South Portland, where the district recently released a draft plan for five days of in-person learning next year.

“With everyone getting vaccinated, that takes a big chunk of worry out of the situation,” said Welch, who works as an education technician and relied on his mother-in-law to help with child care during hybrid learning while his wife was also working full time. “I think most parents are pretty excited about going back.”

Even without a vaccine for those under 12, Welch said he thinks it will be safe for children to be in school more now that many adults are vaccinated. “It’s kind of contained to them and if the adults are safe, I think it’s OK,” he said. “And we’ll see what happens with a vaccine for these guys over the summer and into the fall.”

Ben Welch and his daughter Emerson, a third-grader at Brown Elementary School in South Portland, talk to a reporter on Tuesday. South Portland released a draft reopening plan recently that calls for a full school week, and it hopes to arrive at a final plan by the end of June. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

School districts around the country are beginning to release plans for September, including the two largest in New York City and Los Angeles, both of which say they plan to have all students back five days per week. Los Angeles will continue to offer a remote option for students who want it while New York said remote-only class will no longer be offered.

In Maine, students may have to wear masks indoors, as is still required in DOE guidance for schools, and physical distancing could still be in place in classrooms and at meals. Some districts have reported low interest in continuing remote-only options and say they will only offer them on a case-by-case basis.

In Cumberland-based School Administrative District 51, which has been plagued all year by a bitter reopening debate that has included attempts to recall school board members, Superintendent Jeff Porter said the district is definitely planning for five days per week in-person in September. They’ve hired 10 additional teachers for the year and will have 11 modular classrooms on campus to ensure that they can comply with the current state distancing requirements.

SAD 51 also has applied to participate in the state’s pooled testing program, but Porter said he doesn’t intend to recommend it in the district’s reopening plan because of a lack of interest from parents, whose consent is required for children to be tested for COVID-19.

In a district survey, less than 30 percent of responding parents at the middle and high school level were interested in testing, while at the elementary level 36 percent were interested.

Buxton Center Elementary School principal Craig Pendleton describes how the lunch room will transition to the gymnasium in the fall, when the school plans to host all students in-person five days a week. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“I am not recommending pooled testing to be in the reopening plan due to the survey results, but we are leaving the door open to revisit over the summer if there is a change in guidance from the state that may make it worth looking at again,” Porter said.

The pooled testing program, which opened to schools last month and is available for use this summer and fall, eases the physical distancing guidelines so that 3 feet of distance between students is recommended but not required. At least 30 percent of students and staff must participate for the distancing requirement to be relaxed.

The program, which is free to participating districts, combines nasal swab testing from small groups of students that can be followed up with individual tests in groups that collectively test positive.

As of late May, 14 school districts and 11 individual schools, including some private schools, had signed up to participate in the pooled testing program. The DOE has said interest is high but superintendents are now juggling competing end-of-the-year demands, which may be limiting sign-ups.

Penna, the superintendent in SAD 6 in Buxton, said his district won’t use pooled testing because they expect it to be time-consuming and demanding on staff without any significant advantage. “We’re already planning for 3-foot spacing and hiring teachers for that, so I don’t really feel like the amount of work and time and people it’s going to get through, that is going to be any great savings to me as opposed to just hiring teachers and having students distance at 3 feet in classrooms,” Penna said.

He said some parents are hesitant about having their children tested. “Thirty percent of people have to do it, so you’ll get 30 or 40 percent and then there are going to be people who are opposed to having their kids swabbed on a regular basis,” he said. “There are just a lot of variables.”

A classroom at Buxton Center Elementary School is set up for the physical distancing school officials anticipate they will need for the fall, when the district plans to get back to in-person learning five days a week. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

At Buxton Center Elementary School, staff have been arranging classrooms with 3 feet of distance between desks and are planning to transform the gym into a cafeteria with desks for seating. Most students ate lunch in classrooms this year, but with more students expected to attend in person next year and 6 feet of distance still required at meals, more space will be needed.

In York, the school department was among the first in the state to sign up for pooled testing. Superintendent Lou Goscinski, who is also planning for five days per week in the fall, said the program offers the advantage of allowing people who are asymptomatic but are close contacts to avoid quarantine.

“What happened this year was we had students missing anywhere from 10 to 40 days of in-person learning because of quarantines,” Goscinski said. “If I’m a parent and want my child in school, I’m going to engage my child in pooled testing.”

Districts are also grappling with whether to continue to offer remote-only options as they resume full in-person classes. Scarborough and South Portland won’t offer a remote option next year, while Portland plans to offer a limited Remote Academy for students who can’t attend school in person because of a health condition in their home.

In SAD 6, officials were planning on offering a remote-only option, but after Penna made his recommendation for five days per week in person, interest has significantly declined. He said they’ll work to accommodate families with special circumstances and re-evaluate a remote-only option in 2022-23.

 

“I think when people realized we were going to be full time, they recognized it might be better for their children,” Penna said. “We will work on offering (remote-only class) next year if more people would like it to be an option, but it just isn’t in the cards this year because I don’t know if people really want it.”

Throughout the school year, educators and school leaders have said they continue to believe that in-person learning is best for most students. Along with navigating safety precautions this fall, they’ll also be tasked with figuring out the impact the pandemic has had on students and their overall well-being.

“Probably the biggest concern is meeting students’ social and emotional needs to get everybody readjusted, as well as the needs of our educators,” said Grace Leavitt, president of the Maine Education Association. “Everybody’s really dealt with trauma from this experience, so we need to be sure we are paying attention to that first and foremost, both for the children and the adults returning to our schools.”

Leavitt said it’s too early to know what school will look like in the fall, and without a vaccine for younger children there are safety concerns. “As always, things can change. But I think most people are feeling hopeful that (full in-person learning) will be possible and doable while also staying safe,” she said.

Welch, the South Portland parent who works as an ed tech at Mahoney Middle School, said returning to five days per week will be a big change, but most school staff members are eager for more in-person time. “Most teachers I talk to, they want to get going again,” he said. “Especially from a learning point of view and a teaching point of view – you lose so much momentum (in hybrid). I think every teacher you talk to will tell you that.”

Kate Schier-Potocki puts her arm around her son Finn, a second-grader at Brown Elementary School. The South Portland school district released a draft reopening plan recently that calls for a full school week, and it hopes to arrive at a final plan by the end of June. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Kate Schier-Potocki, whose son Finn is going into third grade at Brown Elementary, said having him home this spring was a challenge both for her and her husband’s work schedules as they tried to do school from home. “It means I’ll be able to be in the office more and have more face time with my team as opposed to trying to manage everyone remotely and manage the facility remotely,” said Schier-Potocki, who owns a catering company and bagel shop.

“It will be an adjustment going back to a full five days, but I think it will be good for them and for a sense of routine,” she said. “Home schooling definitely was challenging with the different dynamic of teaching your own child and their ability to stand up to you versus what they’ll do with a teacher. Overall, I think we were lucky to live in this community, though, where everyone chipped in to help each other out.”


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: