As administrators, teachers, students and their families continue to adjust to distance learning, staff members in Regional School Unit 74 are working to ensure the immediate needs of students and their families are being met before educational opportunities are considered.

Superintendent Mike Tracy said although education is important, the well-being of families within the district is the major concern.

“The school has become the epicenter of the community,” Tracy said. “It has become a place where we check students’ dental, we check for scoliosis, we meet special education needs, education needs, we provide school nutrition and meals, the list could go on and on.”

Because of the pandemic and the rural location of the district’s schools, remote learning has proven to be difficult for many families in RSU 74, as it has for many in Skowhegan-based MSAD 54 and other rural systems where access to the internet and having computer devices that make adequate connections may not be available.

Nevertheless, the district has set priorities and established three main pillars that they are standing behind during the pandemic: food, relational continuity and education.

“I’ve listed them in this order on purpose,” Tracy said. “Not as though (education) is not important. It is the third thing on the list because we know if we don’t meet basic human needs, such as food, and work to make sure that folks are in the best mental health status that they can be, which is that relational continuity and making connections, we know we’ll never get to education.”

Darcie Nichols, an educational technician at Carrabec Community School in North Anson, waves last week to students while working a curbside pickup for food items and other essentials at the school. Julie Clark, right, an educational technician, also helps out at the pickup that served kids.

Nutrition was the first part of the district’s distance learning plan, which was approved by the school board. Immediately after school facilities closed in March, the district, which includes Anson, Embden, New Portland, North Anson and Solon, began providing meals curbside at five different locations throughout the district.

“We knew how important it was to get meals out to the public,” Tracy said. “We immediately began the school nutrition program, and we plan on maintaining that through the remainder of the school year.”

Relational continuity, Tracy said, is crucial to the plan as it mandates that teachers, social workers, guidance counselors and other staff make contact with students regularly to check on how they’re doing both mentally and emotionally and to also see what needs their family has.

“The second priority has been to make connections at least weekly,” Tracy said. “All teachers and staff have been reaching out and making community, student and family connections.”

Darcie Nichols, an educational technician at Carrabec Community School, left, and parent Cindy Ladd distance themselves from each other last week while talking during the curbside pickup for food items and other essentials at the school in North Anson.

The district’s social workers, Beth Higgins, Alicia Bedard and Lacey Frost, said that the focus of their jobs has shifted to making sure that students’ basic needs are being met and also to working with teachers more regularly with concerns about students.

“It’s all a balance,” said Higgins, who works with students at Carrabec High School, Solon Elementary School and Garret Schenck Elementary School. “The range in kids has broadened, and some are doing really well while others are struggling. (Additionally,) the three of us all have our own children at home and that has been a challenge.”

Higgins said that much of the communication that she has with families is to reassure them.

“A lot of them need reassurance when taking their kids out to do things like hikes,” Higgins said. “There is learning that comes from that and it can go a long way.”

“We are primarily working on the social and emotional needs of our kids,” Frost, who is the special education social worker for K-12, said. “At this point, reaching out to families and teachers to provide guidance and insight and guide them to community resources is the focus.”

The ways of getting in touch with families has also changed, Bedard, who works at Carrabec Community School, said. When teachers in the schools can’t get in touch with a student or the family, they reach out to the social workers, who make a second attempt.

“I’ve had several teachers reach out,” Bedard said. “We are all doing what we can to help.”

The third pillar, Tracy said, is education. Students in the district are being provided with educational resources, and the district is continuing to work to provide laptops and internet hot-spots to families that do not have home access.

Fruit, cereal and ingredients for a taco are shown with other foods before being distributed last week at Carrabec Community School in North Anson.

The issues, as in other rural districts, are that families either don’t have internet access at home or their devices are limited. A family could have internet access, but only a smart-phone to access it, which is not ideal for remote learning, or only one device to share among multiple students.

As for grades, Tracy said the fourth quarter will not be graded. Grading right now, he added, would not be equitable because every family is in a different situation.

“This is uncharted territory. We don’t have a protocol,” Tracy said. “Because of that, we have decided to hold harmless.”

Any student that was in good academic standing on March 13 will be able to move onto the next course. Those that aren’t in good standing have the opportunity to work with teachers to hand in missing assignments and fix low grades.

“At the end of the day, we’ve got your back,” Tracy said. “Our approach is to tackle each family’s needs and look at how we can best support them.”

Tracy said that while his district is closely following what Skowhegan-based MSAD 54 is doing, RSU 74 is much smaller and has the flexibility to try other avenues.

When students do return to the buildings, Tracy said that he has a few ideas on how things will change. One idea he is looking at is mandating the use of Google Classroom, which allows teachers to post their assignments from their classes on a digital platform.

Though the pandemic is an unprecedented circumstance, valuable lessons are coming out of it, including preparation for future snow days. If platforms such as Google Classroom are being used, teachers can plan ahead for a snow day and provide learning materials ahead of time so that students can complete their academic assignments, potentially canceling out an earmarked snow day.

“We’ve learned that it takes a village,” Tracy said. “The key for us is to take the pressure off of the families, and the staff is also getting to know them. Everyone is seeing different sides of each other that we didn’t see before.”

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