Sarah Atkins, dean of students at Farrington Elementary School in Augusta, wipes a table Wednesday to be used for meals that teacher Melissa O’Connor packed. Breakfasts and lunches to serve over several days are being distributed at locations across the city on Mondays and Wednesdays.

AUGUSTA — City schools will not grade any new student work or present new material to students now that classrooms are closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to guidelines that have been proposed by Augusta administrators.

The guidelines are spelled out in a seven-page “Continuity of Learning Guide,” written in response to a state Department of Education’s request that schools submit plans for how they will continue to educate students for the remainder of this school year.

Board of Education members voted 6-0 on Wednesday to postpone a vote on the proposed guidelines until a special meeting scheduled for Wednesday, April 15.

Before the vote, letters were read to board members that came from parents concerned their children are not getting the level of education they need; from parents who indicated Augusta is choosing the right path by not putting too many educational requirements on families; and from teachers saying they are doing all they can to educate students during an unprecedented pandemic that is stressing students, families and educators.

Augusta schools will continue to refine remote learning opportunities for students, according to the proposal. But those opportunities will neither include new learning materials nor will student work done while schools are closed be graded or even submitted by students to teachers, according to Superintendent James Anastasio.

The superintendent spoke with school board members Wednesday night during an at-times heated meeting that lasted more than three hours.

Anastasio said grading students on their work during the pandemic would be unfair to some students because not all will have the technology or ability to learn online or outside the classroom.

“The commissioner (of education) said we shouldn’t do anything, through ranking or grading, that harms students in Maine, that no child should be hurt in the state of Maine due to a pandemic that is completely out of their control,” Anastasio said.

Under the guidelines, student grades for this school year will be based on work they have already completed.

Anastasio said officials are also working to revise graduation requirements that will also be based on what students completed before the closure of classrooms.

In some letters read to the board, parents said they were not satisfied with the district’s efforts.

“I’ve heard from two teachers in the district who contacted me to assure me they’re chomping at the bit to educate and have contact with students but whose hands are being tied by the superintendent’s office,” parent Melanie Miller wrote to the school board.

“For the past two weeks parents have watched from a distance as other districts have rolled out opportunity after opportunity to continue to enable their students’ educations from home. Compared to other districts that have daily connections with teachers and the ability, through Zoom, to receive online instruction, Augusta has dropped the proverbial ball.”

Parent Rex Turner, meanwhile, expressed satisfaction with Augusta’s approach, which he said focused on the safety and health of the community. He said teachers and principals continue to reach out to support students and developed online resources they can use, if they choose.

“What there has not been is prescribed assignments, of minimal value, sowing the seeds of discontent as we try to deal with each day, for this I am grateful,” Turner wrote. “Let’s support learning but don’t forget we are in the midst of a worldwide pandemic unlike anything we’ve ever experienced before. Many community members are just trying to survive, economically and literally.”

Anastasio said many teachers have already been reaching out to connect with their students. Among the ways they have doing this: closed Facebook groups for parents, Teacher’s Dojo accounts, Zoom meetings with students, creating classroom web pages and reading aloud with students online.

Additionally, in trying to continue contact with all their students, all teachers have daily office hours, when they can be contacted by email or other virtual means.

Megan Biter, a special education teacher at Lincoln Elementary, said it breaks her heart to know what her students are going through without school. Like many teachers, Biter said she has created Facebook pages to help support her students and opened a Zoom account to communicate with them. She has also helped distribute food to students and participates in multiple staff meetings each week,

“Despite all the efforts of myself and my fellow educators, we’ve been on the receiving end of negativity from a small percentage of people, including some members of the board,” Biter wrote.

School officials also reached out to all students and their families to have them complete a survey of their needs, including whether they need food or other assistance and whether they have the ability and equipment to participate in online learning.

Anastasio shared some of those survey results Wednesday, including data indicating a vast majority of Augusta students have both a device and internet connection, which could enable at least some online learning.

Anastasio said students were asked if they had an internet connection and a device able to connect to it at home. Of the 1,670 students who responded, 95% of high school students, 88% of middle school students and between 78% to 90% of students at the city’s four elementary schools said yes to both questions.

The 1,670 responses were out of approximately 2,200 students in the district.

Amanda Olson, a member of the school board, noted the approximately 25% of students who did not respond to the survey — perhaps because they could not be reached — are likely to be among those who are most vulnerable.

Board member Chris Clarke said the survey results seemed to indicate a large portion of Augusta’s school population could handle some sort of online learning and be graded upon that material.

But Anastasio said the data only indicates most students have technology to connect to the internet. Whether students also have the ability to learn from home, he said, is a far bigger question.


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