OAKLAND — The Regional School Unit 18 school-reopening plan, offering in-person classroom instruction five days a week, was approved Wednesday by the district’s board of directors despite a warning from a teachers’ union representative that the plan is “not safe.”

Nancy Mitchell, co-president of the RSU 18 Education Association, began the meeting with a five-minute address on behalf of the members of the teachers union and a “majority” of the collective bargaining units in RSU 18.

She described the back-to-school plan as not meeting Maine Department of Education standards.

“We understand that everyone is working hard in this district to make it happen so that we can fully reopen, that we can have as many students as possible, and we also understand that is best for them educationally,” Mitchell said, “but it is just not possible to do this safely.”

Even before Mitchell’s remarks, uneasy whispers circulated at the Messalonskee Middle School gymnasium as board members, parents, students, faculty members and residents began arriving about 30 minutes before the start of the meeting.

Despite concerns from the RSU 18 Education Association, the board approved the district’s 2020-21 back-to-school plan, with nine members voting yes and Sarah Langet of Belgrade abstaining.

The plan allows all students to return to classroom instruction under standard precautions amid the COVID-19 pandemic, while giving families the option to choose remote learning.

Prekindergarten is scheduled to begin Tuesday, Sept. 1, and all other students to start school Monday, Aug. 31.

“This year is just phenomenal. What has been taking place, what I’ve seen and heard, and the efforts are not unrecognized,” board Chairperson Laura Tracy said, concluding the meeting. “I am sure this will set us up for success.”

RSU 18 serves about 2,500 students at eight schools in Belgrade, Rome, Oakland, China and Sidney. The district’s current plan allows all students to return for in-person learning five days a week, which is allowed because all Maine counties were categorized as “green” by the state Department of Health and Human Services and state Center for Disease Control & Prevention.

The “green” categorization suggests the county has a relatively low risk of COVID-19 spread and schools may consider in-person instruction, as long as they can implement the required health and safety measures, according to the Maine Department of Education.

RSU 18 Superintendent Carl Gartley said last week — and reaffirmed at Wednesday’s meeting — he expected about 85% of the district’s students to opt for in-person education, in what he described as a hybrid model. Students and their families can also opt for fully remote learning.

Maine schools are required to follow six health requirements for school reopening: symptom screening, physical distancing, masks/face coverings, hand hygiene, personal protective equipment and have a plan for sick staff members and students to isolate at home until healthy.

Mitchell of Sidney said she was concerned social-distancing requirements would not be met at schools. State guidelines stipulate students be at least 3 feet apart, while teachers and staff members need be at least 6 feet from students.

“All over the district,” Mitchell said, “we are seeing rooms that are so tightly packed — given this 3-foot mandate — that if they were to stand and move at any time, they would violate the 3-foot rule.”

The teachers’ association put out an anonymous survey to all members of the district’s staff. More than half the recipients replied within 24 hours, and more than 90% of all respondents wrote they had concerns about safety.

Teachers also reported concerns about violating the rules, according to survey results. In their responses, some members of the staff asked why the district was not going with what Mitchell described as a “true hybrid model.”

Winslow, Vassalboro and Maine School Administrative District 49 recently approved such plans, splitting students into two “cohorts” that will alternate days to begin the school year. Mitchell also offered to share survey results with school board members and district administrators.

“With all due respect, the plan as it stands cannot safely follow these six minimum requirements,” Mitchell told the RSU 18 board. “It is one thing to make a plan, but all over the district, we are seeing where the implementation does not feel safe for our community.”

Gartley thanked Mitchell for speaking and said he would have also noted he had concerns had he taken the survey.

Gartley then addressed some of the spacing guidelines, including how the district’s plan meets safety requirements. He spoke to concerns about child care and what students would do on days they were learning remotely — had the district used a hybrid model, with half the student body alternating each day.

“The best way I can keep students and staff safe is to have students here every day,” Gartley said. “I do not want our kids leaving our schools on Monday and leaving to go somewhere else on Tuesday. Student and staff safety is paramount to what we do.

“I am terrified that something will happen to one of our staff and students, but I believe this is the absolute best way, with my heart and soul, to keep students and staff safe.”

Carl Gartley, superintendent in Regional School Unit 18, speaks Wednesday during a board of directors meeting at Messalonskee Middle School in Oakland. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Morgan Genness, a senior and three-sport athlete at Messalonskee High School in Oakland, also addressed the board, saying she and many other students would like to return to in-person education.

“If we were to learn a whole semester of material online, that would be my worst nightmare,” Genness said. “We want to learn the one way we know how: In classrooms.”

The district shifted responsibilities in seven new elementary school teaching positions, with most classes having 15 or 16 students. One class with 18 students will have an extra education technician, while a 19-student class will have an extra half-time teacher.

All middle school classes in RSU 18 will have fewer than 20 students, according to Gartley, and larger class sizes at the high school have done some shifting to meet safety guidelines.

The district has bought tents and other supplies to create outdoor learning spaces. It has also launched a separate website dedicated to coronavirus precautions.

The district also has shipments of face shields, gloves, gowns and hand sanitizer — 450 gallons of it — on the way.

Gartley said the district’s goal is to “get students back, make sure we can open and get everybody safe, like with athletics.”

“Our district,” he said, “has a strong representation supporting all extracurriculars.”

All schools in Maine are awaiting guidance for athletics from the Maine Principals’ Association. Internal extracurricular activities, such as the arts and student government, are in the works, both with in-person and remote participation.

Rebecca Tibbetts, a mother of two students in the district, questioned the Aug. 31 start date, which the board eventually passed, with new member Christina Marden abstaining.

“It seems like where we are at right now, the 31st is a date that is very daunting,” Tibbetts said. “It feels very quick. It feels like a rush.”

School officials said beginning school Aug. 31 provides teachers and staff members three additional days to prepare.

The RSU 18 board also approved the 2020-21 school board calendar and the new Messalonskee High School Handbook.

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