An empty parking lot March 20 at Cony High School in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA — The Augusta Board of Education denied a proposal Wednesday to delay the start of school, instead keeping Sept. 8 as the first day of the 2020-21 academic year.

The board voted 5-4 to reject the proposal, with the deciding vote cast by Chairperson Edward Hastings.

Board members Chris Clarke, Kevin Lamoreau, Kati McCormick and Jan Michaud voted to reject the proposal, while Jennifer Dumond, Staci Fortunato, Pia Holmes and Amanda Olson voted to accept it.

On Aug. 18, Superintendent James Anastasio wrote an email to the Board of Education asking for additional time to open the city’s schools. Clarke provided a copy of the email to the Kennebec Journal.

In that email, Anastasio wrote he would propose delaying the opening of schools from Tuesday, Sept. 8, to Monday, Sept. 14.

He said the additional time was necessary for “several important reasons”: Completing safety guidelines at the school buildings, coordinating student cohorts, getting cohort lists to school bus providers, organizing remote student lists and hiring additional staff.


Clarke posted on his Facebook page about the email from Anastasio, which prompted a spirited discussion in the comments. In his post, Clark said he would be voting against the proposal.

“The central office has had 6 months to prepare remote learning, bus routes, and other like things,” Clarke wrote in the post. “We as a board set a date of September 8th, as requested by the administration. … I will be voting no on this request. It is time the central (office) administration do their job and stop making excuses. Every other district around us is going a week before us.”

Clarke said Thursday he believed those at the superintendent’s office were “dragging their feet” and “making excuses.”

“(Students) have been uneducated long enough,” he said. “We are nine months behind in education.”

Fortunato said Thursday that school administrators in Augusta have been working “long days,” and the notion they have had six months to prepare for the opening of school is not true, given state guidelines were released in June.


“I don’t think asking for extra days was a big ask,” she said.

Fortunato said school officials are still trying to reach 139 students to get their status for the upcoming school year, while school staff members have not finished distributing electronic devices to students.

With regard to busing, Clarke said there should be “no issue” because bus routes would be the same as last year and the number of buses needed could easily be determined once the number of students requiring transportation is available.

Clarke also said staffing issues are not unique to Augusta.

“Every school district in the country is having trouble filling positions,” he said. “We need to start with what we have.”

Hastings said he cast his vote to reject the proposal because he did not think delaying the start of all the schools made sense, at least as proposed.


“It’s just such a very complex conversation,” he said. “I felt it was the correct decision.”

Hastings said delaying the start of school to Sept. 14 could complicate schedules for students from other districts who attend classes at Capital Area Technical Center. He said officials from Cony High School told the board they were ready to begin classes Sept. 8.

Hastings said the board would likely support a staggered schedule for the opening of some schools, which could be discussed in the near future. Further, he said, a staggered opening for Augusta schools could reveal issues that need be resolved before other city schools open.

Hastings said school officials have been working hard to prepare for the upcoming school year, and his vote did not indicate dissatisfaction with the administration.

“They’re busting their (expletive),” he said. “Just sometimes, you have to say ‘go’ and see what happens.”

Dumond said she voted for the extension because she believed teachers needed more time to prepare for the start of school.


“Personally, I think if the teachers didn’t need it, they wouldn’t ask for it,” she said. “If they’re taking care of our kids, they’re the professionals in this unknown situation, such as COVID.”

Fortunato said she heard teachers “feel unsupported and disappointed” by Wednesday’s vote. She said school staff feel “challenged with a lot of things happening all at once.”

Anastasio did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

In an Aug. 20 memorandum, Anastasio noted first-graders will not be able to have four days of in-person instruction, as previously planned, because there is not enough staff to accommodate such a schedule.

In his memorandum, Anastasio wrote that a hybrid model and a fully remote model will be available for students.

The hybrid model allows students, who are divided into two cohorts, to be at school two days a week and learn remotely three days a week.


Also in his memo, Anastasio wrote that the district has been “unable” to hire faculty and staff to support four days of in-class instruction in first-graders. He noted that prekindergartners and kindergarteners will have four days of in-class instruction.

Hastings said the district was attempting to double the number of first-grade teachers so all students could go to class four days a week and meet social-distancing guidelines.

Because the district has been unsuccessful in hiring more teachers,  Hastings said, first-grade students will be divided into cohorts. They will go to school two days a week and utilize remote learning the remainder of the week, like older students.

Jan Murphy, president of the Augusta Teachers Association, the union representing school employees, said she was disappointed the delay failed to win the board’s support. She said the association did not ask for an extension, but one was needed.

“They’re trying to negotiate what the classroom looks like going forward,” Murphy said. “There’s a lot of concern about (whether schools) have enough staff.”

Murphy, a speech-language pathologist at Hussey School, said Thursday was the first day teachers were allowed back into the school and her colleagues’ stress levels were “crazy.”


“Usually, that first day everyone is excited, and as the day went on it got better, but there’s still a lot of unknowns,” she said. “People want to feel ready. They don’t want to be doing things on the fly, like we did in April.”

Murphy said there are 29 vacant positions at Augusta schools, and while six more days might not have been enough to fill all of them, some jobs might have been filled before classes began.

She said her biggest issue with Wednesday’s vote was it indicated some on the board did not trust administrators at the central office.

“How do you not trust them?” Murphy said. “They’re the experts.”

She said teachers are uncovering a number of issues as they go about their normal work. Students, for example, are not supposed to share school supplies, which could complicate normally routine behavior.

Murphy said teachers are also learning new teaching platforms.

“Teachers have always worked more than an eight-hour day,” she said. “To have that extra time to prepare and do it right, (it) would have been beneficial.”

Despite the stress some teachers are experiencing as they return to their classrooms, Murphy said the district is doing a good job with its efforts to keep students and employees safe.

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