WINSLOW — The Winslow Town Council and School Board met Monday to discuss using the old junior high school for additional classroom space so students can return to in-person instruction this fall while abiding by social-distancing guidelines brought on by COVID-19.

Renovations to the elementary and high schools are expected to be completed in September to accommodate junior high students, but no long-term plans for the junior high building have been finalized.

The Kennebec Valley Community Action Program has shown interest in developing senior housing in part of the building, but those plans are unlikely for now due to the coronavirus pandemic.

School Superintendent Peter Thiboutot opened Monday’s meeting by explaining what is expected for the upcoming school year.

“As you can well imagine, the administration has been meeting on a regular basis to talk about opening schools,” Thiboutot said. “We’ve been reviewing various guidelines that have been coming our way. During these conversations, there are a lot of things that we don’t have the answers to yet, and that’s happening everywhere.

“We want definitive answers, but we’re not there yet. So, the best thing we can do is think about some barriers that will be in our way in the fall when we go to reopen our schools. Best-case scenario, everything is a go, we open up, business as usual. There’s not much of a reality that’s going to happen, so it’ll have to be some type of hybrid plan.” 

Winslow Public Schools initially implemented distance learning in mid-March. The district announced in April it would maintain remote learning for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year, as had been recommended by Commissioner Pender Making of the Maine Department of Education.

The fate of Winslow Junior High School has been discussed since 2013, when a building committee was formed and began debating whether to renovate the existing building, built in 1928, build a new school or split up students between the elementary and high schools, which were to be renovated to accommodate the additional students.

In May 2019, town officials decided to add wing onto Winslow Elementary School for sixth-graders, and a wing onto the high school for seventh- and eighth-graders, after which the junior high would be closed.

Construction of the wings is expected to conclude in September.

The “hybrid” plan to bring students back to their classrooms requires increased space to ensure 6 feet of social distancing is possible, according to Thiboutot.

“Social distancing is something we know is a crucial piece to all of this,” Thiboutot said. “And so, if we were a low risk and we were allowed to open, but we could only open with the same requirements they’re talking about now, (that’s) being 6 feet apart.

“In a regular classroom, that means you can get nine or 10 kids in a room, around half of a regular class size. And Winslow is in a unique situation where we have a building that has rooms that could provide some of that space if the need should arise, so that’s the gist of the big picture.” 

Thiboutot told the council the School Board is in the process of creating surveys to send out to students and parents to gauge the comfort level of returning to in-person instruction.

“We’re going to have to survey our parents with questions such as, ‘If we’re given the green light to open in some capacity, are you planning on sending your child to school?'” Thiboutot said.

“Knowing we’re putting in all of the safe guards, ‘Are you willing to send your child to school?’ We need to know what students have compromised health. We need to hear from our staff. Are our staff members safe to come back?” 

Town Manager Michael Heavener said the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, or KVCAP, was looking at the junior high school, although no firm plans have been presented.

“KVCAP has expressed interest in remodeling sections of the junior high building to create affordable senior housing,” Heavener said, adding KVCAP was looking to occupy the right wing of the building and create 32 apartments.

Additionally, the town has looked at the possibility of enlisting a nonprofit organization to lease out the remainder of the space that would not be occupied by KVCAP.

“We see this as a short-term thing,” School Board Chairperson Joel Selwood said. “Hopefully, it’s for the next school year, and we don’t want to disrupt a 30-year plan with a one-year plan. But assuming the longer-term plan would be longer to put together, this might fit the interim well.” 

After more discussion on opening the building to students, the council and board came to an agreement that the board needed to gather more information from surveys and come up with a specific amount of space they would need in the building.

Heavener assured the school board his goal was for all to work together to bring students back to school safely.

“Don’t worry about what’s going to happen to the building in the future,” he said. “Just think about this year.”

Thiboutot said the surveys will be finished this week. The board can then gather details of what will be needed to bring students back to school in seven weeks.

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