Cony High School and its empty parking lot March 20 in Augusta. The school committee is working on plans to allow students to attend school in person twice a week, while working remotely two other days. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA —The Augusta Board of Education approved a still developing back-to-school plan that will have most students attending classes in-person two days a week, and remote learning two days a week.

The proposal is a hybrid for most students, combining in-person classroom time with remote learning.

It will split students into two groups, in order to reduce the number of students in school buildings at once, to allow for enough room to comply with social distancing requirements.

Half of students will be in school Monday and Thursday, while the other half will be in school Tuesday and Friday. Wednesday, the day when no students are in schools, will be for educators to prepare materials.

Superintendent James Anastasio said it would be impossible to meet social distancing requirements, even if the less-strict 3-foot requirement of the World Health Organization is used, versus the 6-foot Center for Disease Control & Prevention standard, if the entire student population came to school every day. The proposal relies on the lesser, 3-foot distancing requirement between students.

An exception to the two-days-a-week schedule could be having kindergarten and first-grade students in classes in-person four days a week if, Anastasio said, the district can hire more faculty and lease classroom space. Anastasio said options for additional classroom space include the city-owned Buker Community Center. He said the district is seeking to add 25 “permanent” substitute teachers to help address the need for more staff.

Board members, during an online meeting via Zoom, voted unanimously to approve the plan after nearly four hours of discussion, despite questions remaining about numerous details of how the plan will work.

“I look at it like it’s a fluid document, because there is too much remaining where we don’t know what the future holds,” said Jan Michaud, board member. “We can OK this initial work people have done so carefully and thoroughly, with the caution that … as time goes on the board gets an opportunity to review it. I say let’s give this initial plan a yes, with the option of making the needed changes as we progress.”

Some members couldn’t be heard by other members or the viewing public due to connection problems throughout the virtual meeting.

Board members also voted to move the first day of school to Sept. 8.

State officials have issued guidelines to school districts and plan a color-coded system to indicate whether schools in each county can have in-person classes or not, based upon indicators for the presence of the coronavirus in each area. The first set of rankings gave schools in each county a “green” rating, meaning they all may have in-person classes.

All Augusta students who don’t already have them will get devices, in many cases Chromebooks, that will allow them to connect online for virtual work.

Anastasio said the district, in part using grant funds meant to help schools deal with the coronavirus, is purchasing enough devices “to ensure that all students, regardless of grade level, will have their own device. We want to ensure that everybody has an opportunity to be successful and has a device to do that. We’re putting in an order of over $1 million in new technology.”

School buildings will be cleaned daily, and deep cleaning will take place on Wednesday, when students are not in school, and on weekends.

Busing will still take place but students are encouraged to find other ways of getting to and from school, such as via rides from parents. Bus drivers will assign seats to students and will load buses from back to the front, according to the plan. Buses will have hand sanitizer available and bus drivers and students must wear face masks on the bus. There will be no field trips.

Anastasio said the district is still awaiting guidance from state officials on busing. He said if social distancing rules are in place for buses, only 13 students will be able to ride on each bus.

If a student or staff member shows symptoms of COVID-19 the district would follow CDC protocol. A designated isolation space, separate from the nurse’s office, will be established at each school facility. Family members of students would be contacted, and advised to pick up their child as soon as possible, to take home or to a health care facility. Areas used by a sick person would be closed off to be cleaned and disinfected. And other students or staff who have had close contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19 would be directed to stay at home and self-monitor for symptoms and follow CDC guidance if symptoms develop.

Students will be graded on their remote work, though some assessments may be altered or replaced, according to the plan. Attendance will be taken on remote learning days.

Cony Principal Kim Silsby said students, on remote learning days, would work independently but would have a teacher or an education technician reachable who could help with academic support.

As in all Maine schools, in-person classes could stop if there is an outbreak of COVID-19. In that case, learning would shift to virtual. Parents may also opt to have their students take only virtual classes. Or they may withdraw their students and home-school them.

Anastasio, in a letter posted on the district’s website, said the city’s schools’ guidelines are based upon the state Department of Education’s guidelines in six areas — screening before coming to school for staff and students, physical distancing and school facilities, masks and face coverings, hand hygiene, personal protective equipment and return to school after illness.

Anastasio warned that even with the guidelines in place, complete safety is likely not possible. “Please realize the goal is to reduce the risk. The risk may be eliminated in the future but not the immediate future.”

Students and staff who are considered to be at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 are encouraged to contact their health care providers about whether, and under what circumstances, they should return to school in-person.

Students vulnerable to illness will be allowed to complete their coursework remotely.

The plan states the district will consult with an attorney and its human resources office regarding feasible special accommodations, such as alternative teaching assignments, for staff who are more vulnerable.

Steps to be taken to screen people for symptoms before they enter school buildings include providing screening questions for parents to ask their children before sending them to school and encouraging parents to keep their children at home if they answer yes to any of the screening questions or have any symptoms.

Amanda Olson, board member, expressed concern that the onus would be on parents to make sure they screen their children each day. Anastasio said it would be impractical for school employees to screen all students at the entrances to school buildings.

A member of the public commenting during Wednesday’s meeting also expressed concern, stating that some parents will send their kids to school when they are sick.

Hygiene practices are expected to include: teaching and reinforcing hand-washing, covering coughs and using face coverings, which are required by the state guidelines; providing hand soap and at least 60% alcohol hand sanitizer, paper towels and no-touch trash cans in all bathrooms, classrooms and frequently trafficked areas; providing masks and other personal protective equipment to staff; allowing students and staff to bring their own hand sanitizer and masks; and ensuring building ventilation systems work properly.

Students would be required to wear masks at all times, other than when they’re eating breakfast or lunch. Each student will be provided two masks.

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