AUGUSTA — “They are hanging on by a thread.”

Jan Murphy said that of teachers in Augusta on Wednesday night at the city Board of Education’s workshop meeting.

The workshop served as a way for administrators to update the board on how the first couple of months of school went amid continued stress and challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

The workshop also continued the conversation on remote learning after the board’s student representative, Kristen Merrill, urged the district to come up with a solution to remote learning.

Murphy’s comments spoke to the dire situation for many of those who work and learn at Augusta schools. She spoke on behalf of teachers who responded to a survey she sent out regarding remote learning. In response, she received “pages and pages” from teachers who said they had “extreme exhaustion and stress.”

According to the survey, city teachers are burnt out from dealing with students who have to quarantine and study through remote learning. School officials, meantime, said they have seen increases in student behavior issues and problems over the first two months of the 2021-22 school year.

Some longtime teachers said they would consider leaving if the district decided to do synchronous learning, which has teachers conduct classes for in-person and remote students at the same time.

Since September, there have been a record 108 suspensions at the middle and high school, or alternative suspensions, according to one of the high school’s assistant principals, Stew Brittner. Speaking at the Board of Education’s workshop meeting Wednesday night, Brittner said nine students had been suspended that day.

“It’s been a challenging year,” he told the board and other administrators. “We have never seen this number of incidents.”

In addition to the 108 suspensions, there have been 71 detentions, according to school officials.

Cony administrators said most incidents have been vandalism in common areas, such as bathrooms, the food court, gyms or hallways. Data shows reports of students “not listening to basic expectations, conflicts between students, destruction of school property and vaping.”

Other infractions have involved drugs (13% of all incidents), according to school data. Brittner said there were no interactions with alcohol and less with marijuana, but more with vaping. Four students have brought weapons to schools — three knives and a BB pistol. There were also 27 fights resulting in no injuries and three the caused injuries.

Cony Middle School Assistant Principal Jeff Ramich said 40% of the incidents involved first-year students. He reminded the board of how first-year high school students have not had a “normal” year, without interruption from the pandemic, since the 2018-to-2019 school year, when they were in middle school.

“The silver lining is, we aren’t the only school dealing with this,” Ramich said. “I talked with Bangor, Lewiston, Brunswick. They are all having the same issues. The pandemic, social media. It’s causing them to revert back. It’s now two full years these kids have missed.”

Cony has social workers, counselors, a Kennebec Behavioral Health specialist on-site, and a program with the Boys & Girls club to help students who have been suspended. Brittner said there is a high number of students who have not reoffended after using some of the resources.

Cony administrators and teachers have also called parents, shared concerns with the Cony student body, locked and closed off the common areas, increased supervision, brought the issue to the student council and Key Club and used two of the district’s early release days to find out where teachers can help. As a team, the school staff plans to put emphasis on the community aspect of the school through the idea of “Rebuilding our Cony Community.”

The older students are not the only students having issues, according to school officials. Students in elementary school are also having trouble acclimating to a normal school year, administrators said.

Theresa Beaudoin, principal of Farrington Elementary School, said students younger than third graders have never had a “normal” school year, and students who were in Cohort C, the fully remote cohort from last year, are struggling the most.

“Prekindergarten and kindergarten are not ready,” Beaudoin said. “They can’t sustain their attention or their stamina. They struggle working in groups and adhering to personal space. There has been inappropriate language.”

Beaudoin said staff members are “overwhelmed” and the elementary schools have had unprecedented absences.

The unpredictability of students and the amount of time and resources teachers have had to put into dealing with the incidents have made it hard to consider synchronous remote learning. They have also left teachers little time to record lessons or come up with plans for those in quarantine.

Administrators said the difference between last year and this year is that schools needed to offer a remote option. Class sizes were smaller and teachers were assigned to a hybrid class or a fully remote class, where they were able to have enough of their own lesson planning time to come up with lessons students could follow online.

Superintendent James Anastasio said the Board of Education has agreed to follow state Center for Disease Control & Prevention guidelines and the CDC “strongly recommends” in-person learning for the students.

He and Cony Principal Kim Silsby said the district has offered many resources for students to help students stay in school by opting into pool testing and getting vaccinated, if of age. The district has offered two vaccination clinics and 465 people are enrolled in the pool testing, making up 24 pools.

Cony High School Assistant Principal Gabe Levesque said so far this year, the school has had 16 positive COVID-19 cases, and out of 160 close contacts, only 48 had to quarantine. With pool testing, which kicked off a couple of weeks ago, out of 110 close contacts, only 21 had to quarantine.

Since the elementary schools have students who are unable to be vaccinated at this time, they have had more students who have had to quarantine, due to being in close contact. If students participate in pool testing, however, they do not have to quarantine and can continue to attend school if they are a close contact.

The elementary principals said they are urging families to register their children for pool testing to keep them in school and avoid having to quarantine.

Anastasio, Silsby and the elementary school principals said they have recommended against synchronous learning, where a student who is out sick can tune into Google Classroom and see their teacher.

Board of Education Chair Amanda Olson asked what was different this year in comparison to last year.

Silsby and Beaudoin said in some cases, synchronous learning can become inappropriate if a student is streamed on the screen in the classroom. They also said it creates issues of equity because students have different levels of parenting and or require different amounts of help.

“We did it last year because we chose it for the model,” Silsby said, “and we are showing the challenges from last year.”

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