Central Maine area K-12 schools are starting to announce postponements and cancellations to activities and events — while still holding regular classes — in the wake of the spread of coronavirus in the nation and across the world.

But on Friday, Hallowell-based Regional School Unit 2 announced it would cancel classes on Monday in order to give teachers and administrators at district schools “time to prepare for a possible and sudden school closure related to COVID-19.” Another workshop was planned for Friday, March 20.

COVID-19 is the illness caused by the coronavirus, which by Friday afternoon state health officials said had been positively identified in at least two people in Maine.

In a short interview Friday, Superintendent Mary Paine said the district will be asking teachers to come up with a 15-day plan to “continue students’ education.” She said she has “complete confidence” that the teachers will produce “something viable.”

“That is not because we anticipate a three-week closure; we have no news of a closure,” Paine said. “We don’t want to be caught off-guard.”

RSU 2 on Thursday said all activities that “involve gathering” would be suspended, including after-school activities, field trips and events that bring the public into its schools.

Gov. Janet Mills has recommended postponing or canceling nonessential indoor gatherings of 250 or more people and suspending all nonessential out-of-state travel by state employees. Her recommendations came amid a flurry of cancellations and postponements as the U.S. and world aim to stem the spread of coronavirus.

Some Maine colleges and universities announced changes earlier this week. The University of Maine System announced that students will leave campus after March 22 and all classes will transition to remote learning. Bowdoin College and Colby College also said they would ask students to leave campus in the coming days and transition to remote learning after spring break.

Across central Maine, public and private schools serving children and teenagers are starting to grapple with the same issues.

 

‘WE STICK TOGETHER’

School superintendents in several central communities say they are prepared to feed children who need food if schools close.

“I just came out of a second planning meeting on food service for kids,” Waterville Schools Superintendent Eric Haley said Friday afternoon. “We do have plans. A lot of families suffer from food deprivation so we are going to feed kids.”

While Waterville, which has 1,800 students in its school system, does not plan to close schools now, that time could come, according to Haley. “We’re getting more serious all the time about this, to prepare to shut down,” Haley said.

The state Department of Education and Department of Agriculture have given Waterville schools permission to ensure children have meals using a program similar to the summer feeding program Waterville operates. Haley said all youths 18 or younger, whether they are enrolled in Waterville schools or not, would be able to eat at the sites, free of charge. Waterville serves 300 meals a day during the summer.

“We have official sites that we deliver food to and they’ve given us permission to serve breakfast and lunch and they’ve taken away the requirement that they have during the summer that they have to eat on site,” Haley said.

The bigger challenge may be who will care for children whose parents must work, according to some superintendents.

“I do think this is one of those situations where Maine’s going to say, ‘We stick together and we’re going to get through this,’ ” Haley said.

Carl Gartley, superintendent of Regional School Unit 18 which serves 2,800 students from Oakland, Belgrade, Rome, Sidney and China, said every family is different and while some have plans in place for child care, others do not.

“What I am seeing is, people are stepping up all over the place and I think that people will have to — and will — help neighbors and take care of them,” Gartley said. “We’re going to have to rely on each other and make sure we keep everybody safe.”

He said RSU 18 works on an emergency preparedness plan all the time and that includes a program to help feed children.

“We have a model in place where we could run a feeding program when school is not in session,” Gartley said.

RSU 18 has no plan to close schools, but the situation is ever-changing, he acknowledged. “If we were to be told by the state that we are closing, we will, of course, be ready,” he said.

The state has given local superintendents the flexibility to make decisions to close schools with the caveat that it is done in consultation with the state Department of Education and Center for Disease Control, according to Brent Colbry, superintendent of School Administrative District 54 which serves 2,500 students in Skowhegan, Canaan, Cornville, Norridgewock, Mercer and Smithfield.

Colby said Friday that SAD 54 does not have plans to close schools now, but officials have developed a plan to provide meals to children in each town, at off-school sites, being mindful that transportation to the sites may be difficult for some people.

“We’d set up more than one site in each community,” Colbry said.

In a letter sent home with Augusta students, Superintendent James Anastasio said all field trips and out-of-school trips are canceled. Outside use of school facilities is also suspended. Anastasio’s letter also said the agenda for a March 20 workshop has changed and will be used to prepare teachers and administrators “for the potential of school(s) closing.”

Anastasio said that school officials met a number of times before coming to this decision, which Anastasio said was also informed by information publicized by President Donald Trump and Gov. Janet Mills. He said the situation is “evolving so quickly” and the district will make adjustments as needed.

 

ACTIVITIES CANCELLED

Even as school officials come to grips with the possibility of not holding classes, they were swiftly announcing cancellations and postponements this week for other activities, events and meetings.

Other adjustments aimed to minimize in-person interaction. The letter from Hallowell-based RSU 2, for example, also says that parent-teacher conferences will be conducted by phone. A Saturday event at Hall-Dale Elementary School, where attendees could have gotten a look at an original copy of the Declaration of Independence, was canceled on Thursday, according to Principal Kristie Clark.

In Augusta, Cony High School’s Chizzle Wizzle, the nation’s longest-running student variety show that had been scheduled to take place next week, will go on, to some extent. There will be one show Friday, March 20, but only for middle and high school students and staff. Administrators said they’ll try to record or webstream the performance so others can watch the event. The public performances of Chizzle Wizzle will be postponed, to the week of May 12 to 15.

Gardiner-area School Administrative District 11 and Winthrop Public Schools have also announced similar cancellations of athletics and field trips. SAD 11 has also said it will not rent out school facilities until the end of March, and has set up a webpage with all communication it has provided on coronavirus.

SAD 11 Superintendent Patricia Hopkins said the district was also seeking a waiver that deals with the 175-school day minimum for an official school year. She said the state is offering waivers for districts with plans in place for remote learning and the school board must request it to get it. Hopkins also said she is leaning toward recommending that staff be paid in the event of the closure, as many employees, including those paid hourly, could feel a significant financial impact.

Farmington-area Mt. Blue Regional School District Superintendent Tina Meserve said the school has suspended use of its facilities by outside organizations and canceled all large events, including a choral festival. She added that students and staff will no longer travel out-of-state, though some local field trips will happen as planned. Volunteers and presenters will also be allowed in the schools, as long as they do not show any signs of illness. Meserve said the changes have “moving targets” and “can change at any time.”

Meserve also said school athletics are also canceled, citing that the Maine Principals Association has pushed back the start of spring sports to April 27.

Maranacook Area Schools Superintendent Jay Charette said the school has canceled all field trips “for the foreseeable future” and all after-school activities have been canceled effective this coming Monday.

 

‘UNPRECDENTED TIMES’

In Winslow, School Superintendent Peter Thiboutot described schools as being in “unprecedented times.” They are accustomed to dealing with school closures for summer break and other events, but not for the current situation.

“It’s such an impact on the entire community,” he said.

Winslow officials have been talking about the possibility of what should happen if schools close, according to Thiboutot, who said there are summer meals locations throughout the town where meals could be delivered, as they are in the summer.

“That’s our preliminary plan,” he said. “Things change every minute.”

SAD 53 Superintendent Sherry Littlefield, who oversees schools in Pittsfield, Detroit and Burnham, had been in administrative meetings most of the morning Friday and said the district plans to close schools Monday to allow for an in-service day so faculty can develop a plan for remote operations in the event of school closures.

“They’ll come in and try to design 10 days worth of work, should we have to close for two weeks,” Littlefield said.

Like some other districts, SAD 53 would plan for a meal program similar to its summer meal program, she said.

At Forest Hills Consolidated School in Jackman, which serves 150 children in kindergarten through grade 12, all in one building, Superintendent William Crumley said officials have discussed the possibility of having to close school.

“We have no plans to close right now,” he said. “If we do close, currently we have no plan to feed kids. Things are changing on a daily basis.”

Michael Tracy, superintendent of RSU 74, which serves 623 students in Anson, Solon, Embden, and New Portland, said schools are preparing for the potential of a two-week closure, to include both food and academic plans.

“We’re working on this in the heat of time,” Tracy said. “What we’re doing now is different than what we were doing three hours ago. The CDC and DOE are constantly updating intel.”

Tracy said if schools do close, they will probably have to set up pods throughout the communities to get food to students as they do in the summer. Two weeks worth of schoolwork would also be part of “care packages.”

He said the schools care about people in the communities and will work with them and keep them informed.

“We’re trying to be diligent, and I would say the community has been more than gracious, kind and and graceful through this time,” he said.

Mike Hammer, superintendent of RSU 19, which serves between 1,800 and 1,900 students in Newport, Corinna, Dixmont, Etna, Hartland, Plymouth and St. Albans, said the district is trying to plan for a school closure, though officials are not talking right now of closing.

“We’re working out a plan to have parents call us if they want meals,” Hammer said, adding that buses would deliver meals at the ends of roads or driveways.

“We’re going to have to bring in staff willing to create meals at one location and have bus drivers drop them off,” Hammer said. “We realize that our kids depend on these meals when we’re in session.”

Roberta Hersom, interim superintendent to MSAD 49, wrote, “Our leadership team and Crisis Response Team have met, and anticipate this to be an ongoing priority. … We are trying our best to minimize risk of exposure and prevent the spread of this illness — with the least amount of disruption to students’ education.” 

The district that serves Fairfield, Clinton, Benton and Albion posted on its website changes that will go into effect Monday. All field trips, assemblies, extracurricular and cocurricular activities, booster and Parent-Teacher Organization activities and nonessential meetings are canceled. District facilities will no longer be available to outside groups and will close every weekday at 5 p.m. and will closed weekends. The custodial staff will also place a heavy emphasis on sanitizing high-touch areas.

The district is developing plans in the event of school closure and will update families with their plans should the need arise.

St. John Catholic School in Winslow, which is already slated to close its doors permanently at the end of this school year, sent a letter out to parents Friday, saying parent teacher conferences are being postponed and the science fair/poetry night scheduled for April 2 also is postponed. Teachers were asked to create a “work at home bag” for each student that includes materials so that children may work from home, the letter says.

“At this time, we don’t know when or if the school will close,” the letter states, “but we want to be prepared and supportive to our families.”

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