Winslow Superintendent Peter Thiboutot announced Tuesday that a committee charged with deciding how its schools will operate in the new year will meet every week in anticipation that the members will receive necessary information from the state. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file

The Winslow Public School District won’t be able to release a set plan regarding whether students will return to in-person instruction in the fall until the state provides guidelines to keep students safe in the midst of the pandemic.

Superintendent Peter Thiboutot relayed this message to a new committee of staff, administration and parents during a meeting Tuesday afternoon.

We can’t make a plan until we know how many kids we can put on a bus …” Thiboutot said. “We want our kids in school, we want to be back … so now we proceed based on the information that we continue to receive and act as quickly as we can.” 

The new committee will meet every Tuesday to discuss how the district will move forward in the upcoming school year once it receives the information from the state. 

Winslow Public Schools initially implemented distance learning in mid-March when the coronavirus began to increase in severity. 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 Makin of the Maine Department of Education.

Even though nothing is set in stone, the administration is looking at three different possibilities, according to Thiboutot.

“What we’re looking at for the fall is hopefully in-person learning with new safety requirements. That’s ideal,” Thiboutot said. “The other piece would be a hybrid situation, and then the last would be the continuation of fully remote learning, which is worst case scenario.”

The committee discussed how each plan would have several factors to consider.

For instance, if the district returned students to in-person instruction, administrators would have to figure out where and when students would have to wear masks. Also, large gatherings such as gym class and lunchtime would have to be rethought.

If the district implemented a hybrid system of learning, it would need to consider getting more laptops for its elementary school students, as the middle school and high school students already have their own laptops.

If the district continued with remote learning, some teachers at Tuesday’s meeting expressed that they would struggle to get students to engage with them because they wouldn’t have that initial in-person connection.

“We have a lot of unanswered questions,” Thiboutot said. “But I think the overarching piece that we’re all in agreement with is that we want our kids and we want our staff to be safe.” 

On June 29, the school board met with the Winslow Town Council to discuss possibly using the old junior high school building as extra classroom space.

The council told the school board that although Kennebec Valley Community Action Program had been eyeing the building for a potential project, the district would be able to use it if it needed to.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Thiboutot said using the junior high school building wouldn’t be ideal, but is still being considered.

“We were thinking of doing something with the old junior high,” Thiboutot said. “The idea is we don’t want to go back there, but if that allows us to get our children back to school, then we would consider doing that …” 

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 a 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 district recently sent out surveys to parents to gauge their comfort level with returning to in-person instruction.

According to Thiboutot, a strong portion of respondents said they would want their child to return to school for the fall.

Thiboutot said the next step is to survey the staff members to see how they feel about the possibilities for the upcoming school year.

Next week’s meeting will evaluate the elementary school, the junior high school and the high school separately to assess the individual needs of each school’s student body.

Overall, Thiboutot wants to reassure parents that the district is working hard to come up with a plan.

“Personally I think one of the most frustrating things out of all of this for me is the ability to accurately communicate what needs to be communicated to give people a sense of relief,” Thiboutot said. “I’m 100% certain that parents right now have their anxiety levels right through the roof because they don’t know what’s going to happen this fall …

“They’re probably thinking why isn’t the school telling us what they’re going to do? And it’s because we’re moving cautiously, waiting for the recommendations so that we can safely apply whatever those guidelines are to whatever scenario we’re allowed to move forward with,” he said.

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