Cony High School and its and empty parking lot March 20 in Augusta. Kennebec Journal file photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA — School board members have expressed concerns that the city’s schools haven’t been doing enough to educate students forced out of school by the coronavirus pandemic.

Members raised the alarm at their meeting Wednesday night, saying they’ve heard from parents concerned Augusta has not done enough to help their children keep learning during the pandemic that prompted a statewide closure of schools. They noted that other Maine school districts have been doing more for their students.

They also questioned whether Augusta is doing enough to match state guidelines that schools should continue to provide an education to students.

“Parents are reading state and federal recommendations and reading that education will continue in the state of Maine then hearing us say we’ll provide resources but we’re not really teaching that much,” said Katie McCormick, Ward 4 board member. “Those are very different messages.”

School administrators said when schools first closed due to the pandemic, they didn’t actively disseminate educational materials to students in large part because they were concerned that material could not be accessed by all students. They said they were concerned that would put the city’s schools out of compliance with state and federal requirements the district provide an equal opportunity for a public education to all students.

Administrators reported Wednesday night, however, that educators throughout the district stepped up their efforts over the weekend to provide online educational resources for parents and students. That move came after the district was told by state and federal officials that school systems should continue to provide an education as best as is reasonable and feasible — even if that means not all students will be educated equally due to a lack of access to the same resources.

Earlier in Wednesday’s meeting principals and other administrators described the efforts, largely begun late last week, to develop resource pages, by subject and grade level, for students, put together by individual teachers for their students.

Augusta Superintendent James Anastasio said the resource pages are meant to help parents and students who wish to take advantage of them during the school closure. They aren’t, however, required learning and likely won’t provide the same educational value as a classroom setting with a teacher.

“We’re providing resources to those who want to use them,” Anastasio said. “The Department of Education says provide educational opportunities. We’re doing that.”

He said officials were concerned about utilizing online sources for education, because some families don’t have the technology or internet access to use them. Anastasio also noted that when the schools first closed that the closure would last as long as it is now expected to be. He said the district was concerned sending required learning materials home with students at the start of the closure could add stress for families already concerned about the coronavirus.

The federal Department of Education, in a March 21 fact sheet addressing schools regarding distance learning, stressed that the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction such as online resources.

In a news release U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced she sought to clarify that federal law should not be used to prevent schools from offering distance learning.

“It was extremely disappointing to hear that some school districts were using information from the Department of Education as an excuse not to educate kids,” DeVos said in a statement. “This is a time for creativity and an opportunity to pursue as much flexibility as possible so that learning continues. It is a time for all of us to pull together to do what’s right for our nation’s students.”

School board members urged administrators to allow grade seven and eight students to pick up their school-provided Chromebooks, left behind in classrooms when the schools closed, to help them continue their education online while out of school.

Anastasio warned that those devices would have to be prepared by school staff and then be picked up by students’ families, which could present risks of being exposed to the coronavirus. He also cautioned that about 20% of them probably don’t work and getting them repaired during the pandemic could be impossible.

Concern also was expressed about what might happen if students take them home.

Fred Kahl, director of the information technology department for both the city and schools, warned that allowing students to take the devices home for an extended period of time could result in malware infections. He said if that happened, when the students bring them back when school reopens, the malware could potentially infiltrate the school’s computer network; Kahl also noted that the content filters that work on the school network would not work in the students’ homes.

Last year, the city’s computer network was struck by malware from a hacker attempting to get ransom money from the city.

Kahl said it would be possible to allow them to take the Chromebooks home, and then take precautions to make sure they are safe for the school’s network once they come back.

Board members, Wednesday, were also updated on efforts, through the school system and volunteers, to provide meals to students during the school closure.

Board members, due to concerns about the coronavirus, met virtually using a video conferencing system.


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