Ted Hummel, a teacher at Reiche School in Portland, was working at King Middle School on Monday to connect students with laptops. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

As school districts around Maine settle into long-term closures forced on them by the coronavirus, they’re wrestling with questions about what the school day will look like, how to get technology into the hands of their students and whether students should be graded during a remote learning period that could last months.

So far distance learning plans have mostly taken a backseat to more pressing concerns, like ensuring all students have access to food. But with widespread announcements last week about extended school closures through the end of April, districts are now fleshing out their plans for educating students at home.

With no requirements or mandates in place from the Maine Department of Education, the plans for long-term closures vary by district. Some schools are requiring or strongly encouraging remote learning and taking attendance, while for others remote learning is optional.

Some have or are trying to equip all their students with technology while others are relying on activities that can be completed without internet access. Some students will be graded while some districts have said they won’t grade or haven’t decided on how to evaluate students yet.

“People are all over the map on it and feeling anxious,” Maine Department of Education Commissioner Pender Makin said. “Some districts were fully ready to launch online learning K-12 on Day 1. … At the same time, even for those districts this is the first time piloting it for a long period of time. I don’t think anyone knew a week ago we would be looking at something more than a couple of weeks.”

She said it is important to remember that many middle and high school students have now found themselves as the primary caregivers for younger siblings while their parents are at work. Parents are stressed and are coming home worried that their children could fall behind in school.

“I think it’s very important for all of us to take a deep breath,” Makin said. “This is the beginning. We’re at a point where this explosion is still going up. We don’t know how high or how big this slow-motion explosion of COVID-19 is or how it is going to play out in our state.”

In Portland Public Schools, the state’s largest school district with about 6,800 students, remote learning launched last week with take-home packets for students. The district is striving to provide all students with technology and internet access for continued remote learning.

Laptops and meals were given out to students Monday at Portland’s King Middle School. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Participation in Portland’s remote learning plan is required at this point and attendance will be taken, but based on participation rather than a roll call, Superintendent Xavier Botana said. Students will hand in work and will be graded. But the district also is keeping an open mind about potential changes, understanding that “we’re learning as we go,” Botana said.

“We’re constantly re-evaluating and allowing ways for families to contact us with concerns,” Botana said. “Things like access to technology and so on – we’re logging all of that and carefully looking at it to see what is working and what can be improved.”

Lewiston Public Schools, the state’s second largest district, is currently offering students optional remote learning plans with activities that can be done online, like downloadable worksheets, or without internet, like writing prompts or math games.

The district plans to transition to an online platform after all students are equipped with technology next week. Students won’t be required to participate or be graded, though participation is encouraged, Superintendent Todd Finn said.

“Having a mom, dad or guardian who can help you out could give you an advantage,” Finn said. “Some students don’t have that. So we’re not going to be recording any kind of assessment. There’s nothing to turn in.”

Still other districts are relying at least partially on take-home paper packets or activities that don’t depend on technology.

Pear Capuchino-Ragsdale, 9, plays with her dog, Cousteau, while waiting to pick up a laptop at King Middle School with her mother, Chaning Capuchino, on Monday. Chaning Capuchino said her daughter is already home-schooled part-time so the transition to remote learning was easier.  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

In the Bangor School Department, Superintendent Betsy Webb said students were given paper packets for the first two weeks of school closures, but the district will move next week to activities communicated either by phone or email and that can be completed without technology.

“We have families who do not have access to high-speed internet,” Webb said. “Even to get devices to them wouldn’t overcome the hurdles some families would have for access.”

Teachers are checking in daily or more often to make sure students are doing school work, but grading will be less formal than it might be in a normal school setting.

“At this point we’re really looking at it as grading engagement,” Webb said. “We’re making sure people are participating and engaged, not grading saying, ‘This is a 97’ or ‘This is a 72.'”

In a letter to families last week, Augusta Superintendent James Anastasio said requiring school work “without the necessary supports in place to help parents and students accomplish new learning doesn’t make sense” and the district would provide resources to families to extend learning “if that is your desire.”

Anastasio did not respond to emails or messages left at his office seeking an interview.

In Biddeford Schools, Superintendent Jeremy Ray said the district hasn’t made a determination yet on whether students will be graded, though work is being handed in for teacher feedback. As to whether remote learning is required or not, Ray said, “you will not hear me say it’s required and you will not hear me say it’s not required.”

Sings of encouragement hang in a window at King Middle School in Portland on Monday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“It’s something we have for students and families out there to keep them engaged,” Ray said. “Certainly all families will make their choices and we hope they make the choice to continue learning each day.”

Access to technology is a barrier many districts are facing as they try to adapt to remote learning. The Department of Education is currently working with ConnectME, a state government project aimed at expanding broadband access, to connect 500 Piscataquis County students with Wi-Fi enabled tablets donated by T-Mobile. The department has identified Piscataquis as the county in Maine with the highest number of students lacking internet access at home.

“The effort to get all students connected has been going on for some time,” said Page Nichols, chief innovation officer for the department. “Obviously there is a particular urgency to it right now and we have a team focused on how to get students online so remote learning can happen for every student in the state.”

Makin and school leaders stressed that they are trying to do the best they can in what amounts to a statewide homeschooling experiment while at the same time trying to keep up with students’ social, emotional and physical needs.

In Portland, Botana said social workers have been video conferencing one-on-one with students. The district has been distributing about 1,000 meals per day and is looking at ways to expand access to food.

At King Middle School, one of nine food distribution sites, the district ran out of food after distributing 200 meals Monday. Raafe Osmani, a fourth-grader at Reiche Elementary School, visited King with his mother to pick up a school laptop.

“The bad part is you don’t get to be with your friends and don’t get to learn,” Osmani said of the school closures. “The good part is you don’t have to deal with the coronavirus.”

A classmate, Pear Capuchino Ragsdale, was also there picking up her laptop. “For us, academically, it’s been an easier transition than for some people,” said Chaning Capuchino, Pear’s mother. She said her daughter is already home-schooled part-time, so one of the most difficult aspects of the school closures is the lack of social time or opportunities to do activities like art club or chorus.

Overall, families have been grateful and are eager to have their children back in school – however that looks, said Ted Hummel, a lead teacher at Reiche. But he worries about being able to keep connections with students and that they won’t get the depth of learning they should.

“We know this is going to be an impact to all our families,” Hummel said. “We’re going to try and do the best we can with what we have. We know we’re going to do a lot of reaching out, a lot of outreach with the families. That’s going to be consistent I think for every school.”

 

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