Melissa Cilley has mixed feelings about sending her two daughters back to school full time and in person in a few weeks.

She’s eager for the girls, who will be in kindergarten and third grade at Reiche Elementary School in Portland, to have more social interaction than they did while learning remotely or in a hybrid format last year. But she’s also been watching the daily coronavirus case counts edge higher.

“They need that interaction with kids, for sure,” said Cilley, who mostly feels good about sending her children to back to school this fall. “But I worry about the numbers kind of going up. That’s a little scary.”

Parents around Maine are approaching the new school year with a similar mix of excitement and trepidation. When school let out last spring, many hoped this fall would bring a return to normalcy and far fewer COVID-19 protocols. But the delta variant has thrown a wrench in school districts’ plans, resulting in heated debates over mask mandates and plans for coronavirus testing and vaccine clinics.

In some districts, such as Topsham and Skowhegan, school boards have approved mask requirements with the caveat that they’ll revisit the decision a few weeks into the school year, a move prompted by pushback from parents. At the Portland school board meeting on Tuesday, meanwhile, the board approved a universal masking policy for students and staff indoors even as some parents called for additional precautions such as a vaccine mandate for staff, outdoor masking and more limits on outside visitors to schools.

The plans come as the seven-day average of new daily cases in Maine rose to 172 on Wednesday, up from 100 two weeks ago and 36 cases per day one month ago. Nationally, cases are emerging at their highest rates since last winter as the delta variant spreads, especially among the unvaccinated.

Fears of the delta variant have prompted some parents, like Erica Forsyth of Portland, to decide against sending their children back to in-person school.

“At the end of the spring I was feeling great about what Portland schools had done and I felt they were being quite responsible,” said Forsyth, 32. “I was feeling good. If delta wasn’t an issue and if schools were operating in the same manner as last school year I would have no problem sending my child to school, but they’re operating with less protocols in place to protect children and under a more highly transmissible strain of the virus.”

DIFFICULT DECISIONS

Forsyth plans to stay home this fall with her two sons, who would be entering kindergarten and pre-K, while her husband continues to work as a teacher in Cape Elizabeth. She said they made the decision after Portland released its initial school return plan and shortly after Cumberland County received the designation of having “substantial” community spread of the COVID-19 virus. Given that her older son would only be entering kindergarten, Forsyth said it made sense to wait a year to have him start school.

“It just didn’t seem like a great way to start off the experience for a kindergarten student,” she said.

Sameera Khilwati, whose 5-year-old son is going into kindergarten at Rowe Elementary in Portland, also is worried about COVID and thinks it would be good if schools opened back up online. “I am excited he will start to go to school but the worries about COVID-19 – I have a lot of worries about COVID-19,” Khilwati said.

She also worries about her son’s ability to keep his mask on all day. “Before (school) was part time,” she said. “This year it’s full-time. That’s why I’m worried. It’s hard. 8:30 until 3:30 is a long time.”

Goreth Ingabire, whose children are going into pre-K and first grade at Reiche, is excited about the return to full-time school, though she too worries about her pre-K son being able to keep his mask on. As an immigrant who didn’t grow up in the American education system, Ingabire said it was hard for her to help her daughter last year.

“If she goes to school, it’s much better,” Ingabire said.

She isn’t worried about her son having his first school experience during a pandemic. “It doesn’t make sense to so many parents, but I’m so excited for my kid to go to school,” said Ingabire, 36. “It’s great.”

Betsy Cyr and her son Jack, who is a seventh-grader at Greely Middle School. He is looking forward to full-time school and she is confident in the school district’s plan for reopening.  Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

RISK AND REWARD

Some other families also said the value of in-person learning and the protocols schools will have offset the risk of COVID.

Betsy Cyr of North Yarmouth has children in fourth and seventh grades in School Administrative District 51. She’s confident about sending both back full time in-person.

On Wednesday afternoon, Cyr ticked off a list of protocols in the district’s return plan that are helping her feel comfortable, including a mask requirement indoors and the possibility of participation in pooled testing. “I think they have a good plan,” said Cyr, 39.

Her seventh-grade son, Jack, is looking forward to full-time school. “Being vaccinated, it’s not as bad, but not everyone is,” Jack said. “I don’t know if it’s safe, but I guess I’m fine with it personally.”

While her children were able to manage with hybrid learning last year, Cyr is happy to see them have more time at school. “These guys need to be back in school,” she said. “These are typically developing kids who are older, but I definitely feel for the little ones who never got to experience a true kindergarten and the high schoolers who have missed out on so many life experiences but also have the rich demand of learning, and it’s so hard to do that remote.”

Brian Dietzel is an ed tech at the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf and his daughter Aurelia Higgins is a third-grader at East End Community School in Portland. They’re looking forward to more in-person learning this year, with proper precautions.  Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Aurelia Higgins, a third-grader at Portland’s East End Community School, and her father, Brian Dietzel, are for the most part looking forward to more in-person learning.

“I think there’s always a risk, but as long as schools are taking precautions and parents are doing their due diligence to make sure their kids are protecting themselves as much as they can, it’s OK,” said Dietzel, 35. “It’s obviously not ideal, but I think that while virtual learning is effective to some degree, it is definitely – I think in-person is just way more effective.”

Aurelia, 8, said she will feel safe at school as long as she is wearing her mask, which she plans to do every day. “I like that we’re going back to school, but I also kind of hope I get vaccinated soon so it can go back to normal,” she said.

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