Maine School Administrative District 49 has opted to begin the 2020-21 school year with a hybrid instruction model due to restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

During a school board meeting Thursday evening, the board approved of the plan and discussed the district’s reasoning for choosing a hybrid approach.

“In consideration of capacity and MSAD 49’s ability to meet social distancing guidelines, the district is currently in a position to offer a hybrid model,” Superintendent Roberta Hersom wrote in a letter published to the school’s website.

The district based its decision on Gov. Janet Mills’ three-tiered system that designated counties as green, yellow or red, based on the risk of spreading COVID-19 and the Maine Department of Education’s back- to-school framework.

MSAD 49 includes Albion, Benton, Clinton and Fairfield in Kennebec and Somerset counties. Both counties were listed as “green,” or low risk, according to the state.

Hersom said the district would be unable to fully implement the MDOE’s framework because of a lack of space to maintain social distancing.

“Spacing between children has been drawn down to 3 feet, and we just can’t provide that in our classrooms,” Hersom said at Thursday’s meeting. “And additionally, 6 feet needs to be maintained between an adult and any person, including children in the buildings.”

Physical-distancing requirements also apply to school buses, where seating will be one child per seat. This restriction was also a factor in the district’s decision to adopt a hybrid model.

“That physical-distancing requirement extends to our school buses. So in this school district, unlike our neighboring school districts, we have a fleet that has a capacity that forces us to do two bus runs everyday, and we have a pretty broad geography for this school district,” Hersom said.

“So if you think about one child per seat on the school bus, that’s less than half of what we typically transport. You can see the logistics. We would be moving children all day to get them into the buildings. And once they’re in the buildings, we can’t ensure that we can provide that distancing.”

With the hybrid plan, students will alternate between in-person instruction and remote learning. Parents also have the option to keep their children fully at home to learn remotely.

“Students in all grades will be grouped into two cohorts, attending on alternating days,” Hersom wrote.

These cohorts have been designated as “blue” and “gray.” For example, a “blue” student will learn remotely on a “gray” day, and vice versa. The first day of school Sept. 8 will be a “blue” day.

During in-person instruction, all students and staff will be required to wear face coverings and meet physical-distancing requirements.

To further ensure physical distancing, the district has removed nonessential furniture from classrooms to maximize space and ordered Plexiglass barriers and individual desks.

The district is also looking at making signs to direct one-way traffic to eliminate the possibility of crowding and creating programs to educate students and families on proper methods for washing hands, wearing masks and screening for symptoms of COVID-19 infection.

MSAD 49 shifted to distance learning in March when the coronavirus pandemic increased in severity. Learning remained remote after Pender Makin, the state’s commissioner of education, recommended schools continue distance learning for the rest of the 2019-20 school year.

The plan adopted by the school board is subject to change and, according to Hersom, will be reviewed after an adjustment period.

“After an orientation period of preparing students for the new environment, procedures and a re-acclimation to school, the district will reassess the plan and our capacity to either move to a full reopening or remain in a hybrid mode,” Hersom wrote.

“This initial phase will remain in effect for three weeks, until Sept. 24.  The staff and administration will daily-weekly assess the school environment and monitor risk levels as provided by the MDOE and Maine CDC.”

The school board is scheduled to meet Sept. 17 to discuss modifying the plan.

MSAD 49’s full back-to-school plan can be viewed at msad49.org

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