Most Maine teachers are likely to return to classrooms this fall, but are concerned about health and safety, as well as students’ abilities to adhere to the requirements necessary to reopen.

Parents share those concerns about how well schools and students will comply with social distancing and mask-wearing requirements, but most plan to send their children back to school.

Those are among the key findings of several new statewide surveys published by the state Department of Education. The data released Tuesday comes from surveys the department provided in early July to families, educators, school support staff, and school and district leaders about the 2020 school year during COVID-19.

 

“I am extremely grateful to the tens of thousands of individuals across Maine who took the time to fill out these surveys,” Pender Makin, commissioner of the Maine Department of Education, said in a statement. “Their input is not only deeply appreciated, but it is critical as we further develop our guidance to schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and continue to have conversations with leaders across the state about education in Maine. We remain committed to providing support and leadership during these uncertain and unprecedented times.”

More than 45,000 people responded to the surveys, including 32,426 families, 9,733 teachers, 1,155 school or district leaders and 1,823 school support staff. There are about 182,500 preK-12 students in Maine and about 50,100 people employed in public schools around the state.

Between 79 and 80 percent of teachers and school personnel agreed or strongly agreed they would return to in-person instruction if their district opens in the fall.

Teachers and student support personnel also expressed concerns about their own health and safety and that of their students. About 76 percent of teachers and education technicians and 77 percent of student support staff said they agree or strongly agree with the statement that they have concerns about their own health.

Eighty-two percent of teachers and 80 percent of support personnel also said they agree or strongly agree with being concerned about students’ health and well-being with in-person instruction.

“I can tell you even without the surveys a majority of our members, if not every one of them, is still very, very concerned about safety for any kind of in-person instruction,” said Grace Leavitt, president of the Maine Education Association. The association represents almost 24,000 educators statewide, including teachers, support staff, pre-service teachers and retired educators.

Leavitt said teachers and other educators are eager to be back in-person, but there have been differences in how some districts are interpreting the state’s required safety precautions or in some cases, districts and school boards that are not following them.

“Trying to limit the number of people in contact with one another is certainly a key component of all these plans and so where that isn’t happening that’s a problem,” Leavitt said. “And where there are issues with face masks being dismissed as unnecessary, that’s a problem. We’re all working really hard to correct those types of things. I’m hoping they’re getting ironed out. I don’t want to name names, but at some point we will have to be calling them out because those things aren’t going to be keeping anyone safe.”

Like the teachers, parents and families indicated they also are likely to return to school buildings but are worried about health and safety.

Seventy-one percent of parents agreed or strongly agreed that they would send their child back for in-person instruction and 82 percent agreed or strongly agreed that their child was eager to return.

Fifty-nine percent of parents are concerned about the health and safety of their child returning to school.

The surveys also revealed concerns about the ability of schools to ensure that health and safety requirements can be implemented. Sixty percent of parents said they believe schools can implement the requirements for health and safety, but when asked about students’ abilities to adhere to specific measures, the number of parents who agreed or strongly agreed was much lower.

Only 35 percent of parents said they believe students will be able to avoid physical contact and maintain social distancing, and only 38 percent said they believe students will wear masks.

Only 14 percent of educators agreed or strongly agreed that students would be able to avoid physical contact and only 22 percent agreed or strongly agreed with the ability of students to wear masks.

School and district leaders, meanwhile, had greater confidence in their staff’s ability to follow requirements. Fifty-seven percent of school and district leaders said they believe staff can avoid physical contact and 62 percent said they agree or strongly agree that staff will wear masks.

“I think a lot depends on the area of the state within which you’re having that conversation,” Gorham Superintendent Heather Perry said when asked if students will adhere to the safety requirements. “I think the Cumberland and York county areas have been dealing with COVID in high numbers for quite some time. I think as a result we have a little more practice following some of the rules and regulations than maybe somebody in the rural parts of the state that haven’t encountered the need to do that as often as we have.”

The survey results released Tuesday also include county-level data, which indicates 63 percent of families who responded in Cumberland County and 58 percent in York County agree or strongly agree their schools will be able to adequately implement health and safety guidelines if they reopen for in-person instruction.

Perry said she feels prepared to open under a hybrid model and that the district has been communicating with families on expectations around social distancing for the fall. “I think right now if somebody were to ask me if I could meet the Maine DOE and CDC guidelines under the ‘green’ model, the answer would be no, we would need a lot more work in that area, but in the yellow hybrid model with about 50 percent of the student population on campus at any given time and the other 50 percent home, I feel very confident,” Perry said.

She also cautioned that while the survey results provide some insight, they are also just a snapshot in time and much has changed since the surveys were administered in early July. “A lot has changed in the last 30 days and a lot will continue to change,” Perry said.

York Superintendent Lou Goscinski said there are some concerns about health and safety in his district, especially among parents who want to keep their students home to study remotely. The district is in the process of conducting its own survey of families, which currently indicates about 85 percent would return to school in a hybrid model.

“If a student refuses to wear a mask they won’t be allowed to stay in school,” Goscinski said. “Masks are designed to protect others. We have to follow that guideline and enforce that. If a student does not wear a mask they cannot be in school.”

In the state’s survey, student support personnel, including, for example, school counselors, nurses and bus drivers, also noted concerns about their ability to maintain social distancing, with only 26 percent agreeing or strongly agreeing that staff would be able to keep safe distance. The same staff also noted that only 29 percent believed they would have access to the personal protective equipment needed to ensure their health and safety.

However, both Goscinski and Perry are confident about the amount of PPE their districts have been able to secure. “We have thousands of face masks,” Goscinski said. “We also have gloves. We have face shields. We already have some of that and a good quantity of it.”

He said the district also has placed an order with the Maine DOE for additional PPE.

The department is taking steps to respond to the findings of the surveys, including working with the Maine Emergency Management and the Maine National Guard to deliver personal protective equipment to schools; developing materials and videos for schools to use to teach and reinforce safety protocols; and organizing ongoing professional development so educators can prepare to offer high-quality instruction regardless of the model their schools follow.

Department officials also are continuing to meet daily with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and will be meeting and hearing from educators at a Maine Education Association town hall this month.

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