WINTHROP — A day after the Winthrop School Committee opted for a short-term closure of schools during Thanksgiving week to slow the spread of COVID-19, a group of Winthrop educators said that’s not enough.

During a video call Wednesday, members of the Winthrop Education Association, the teachers’ union, called for a shift to remote learning to keep the community safe and healthy.

“Out of the 60 schools with outbreaks, Winthrop is in the top five,” said Joan Morin, who represents central Maine for the Maine Education Association, including the Winthrop Administrative Association and Winthrop Education Association. “The educators are concerned.”

Morin said Wednesday that she didn’t know how many COVID-19 cases have been reported in Winthrop, but WEA Co-president Theresa Fitzpatrick said 41 cases have been reported at Winthrop Grade School, with fewer at Winthrop’s middle and high schools.

“The Maine CDC recommended we close schools to keep the virus from spreading, and we know it will cause hardships for families,” said Marsha Luszcki, also a WEA co-president. “We can’t ignore that fact, but we might be adding to the increase in the area and force more to quarantine. Since we know we are in outbreak status, more students will have to quarantine and while remote learning is not ideal, all students will have the same access to education and lessons.”

At an emergency meeting Tuesday, the Winthrop School Committee opted not to offer remote learning. Instead, committee members decided to cancel school on Nov. 22 and 23, with those days to be made up later.

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Since the start of the school year, Winthrop schools have followed Maine Center for Disease Control guidelines by implementing universal masking, pool testing, increased sanitization and social distancing. Even so, Winthrop Grade School is currently in an outbreak status and more than 60 people at the middle and high school have been quarantined.

Superintendent Jim Hodgkin said Tuesday he has tracked community spread of COVID-19 in Winthrop since the summer. Last week, 22 cases were reported in Winthrop; this week 16 were reported, due to viral spread within the community, not from within the schools.

Hodgkin told the school committee Tuesday of the CDC’s recommendation to close schools.

On Wednesday, CDC spokesman Robert Long said via email that the agency did not recommend an extended closure.

“The Maine CDC provided epidemiological information to the Winthrop school system to help them make decisions on how to proceed,” he said.

Even so, some committee members and a number of parents said Tuesday they didn’t think implementing a week of remote learning would slow the spread of COVID-19, especially with Thanksgiving around the corner bringing lots of people together and more interactions within the community.

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“I don’t know if adding the additional remote day before or after Thanksgiving week is going to cause any change,” school committee member Kelley Hooper said Tuesday. “The majority of us are choosing not to react and to interact in the community, choosing to mask or unmask in stores, regardless of vaccination status.”

Hooper said an extra week of remote learning would not accomplish much, given that the Thanksgiving holiday generally means bringing a lot of different people together.

Most parents at Tuesday’s meeting were also skeptical about the effectiveness of remote lessons, fearing the switch to remote learning will cause learning gaps for their children.

“The whole goal of school is to teach children,” said Lydia Longstaff during Tuesday’s committee meeting. “If we go remote, we aren’t teaching, there is no instruction. I want to know what is it going to look like? Will there actually be instruction?”

Luszcki said Wednesday that adding the designated remote time would not only slow the spread of COVID-19 but allow teachers to prepare lessons for all students because teachers are currently struggling with creating lesson plans on the fly if someone from their class has to quarantine.

For now, the teachers will continue to go to school on recommendation from the committee but are still urging them to rethink their decision.

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According to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC, Winthrop Public Schools have an eligible student vaccination rate of 75%-79%, which is considered “high” on the chart. As for staff vaccination rates, Winthrop Grade School has a rate of 96.4%, Winthrop Middle School’s rate is 96.7% and Winthrop High School’s rate is 90.3%. Winthrop Public Schools are slated to host a vaccination clinic for students between the ages of 5-11 on Nov. 12

“We want everyone to have equal access to education,” Luszcki said. “The staff is doing the best they can. It’s just the way it is, unfortunately. We have to do something to make sure everyone is getting the same education.”

The two canceled days will be made up later in the school year.

The next school committee meeting for the Winthrop Public Schools will be Nov. 17.

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