SKOWHEGAN — As guidelines and recommendations continue to change, Maine School Administrative District 54 officials say that the district will utilize a soft start to begin the school year.

At Thursday evening’s board of directors meeting, Superintendent Jon Moody and Assistant Superintendent Mark Hatch provided updates on the upcoming school year. Though plans are subject to change per the Maine CDC guidelines, Moody said that for now, the soft start will run for the first three weeks of school, Sept. 1 through Sept. 18.

Green plans will be fully operational beginning Sept. 21.

The soft start plan calls for all students in grades pre-K through 12 to switch off which days they spend in the classroom and which remotely. Students with last names that start with the letters A-J will attend in-person classes Tuesday and Thursday and those with names starting with letters K-Z attend Wednesday and Friday.

When the soft start is over, students in pre-K through six will go to school in facilities every day while those in grades 7-12 will continue with the hybrid model.

Under the green plan, students in prekindergarten through grade six will be in-person every day. All students will have 1:1 technology with the ability to take their devices home.

The plans include adjustments to classroom structure and operation, hallway and building traffic flow, itinerant programming and increased education about hygiene.

Classroom spaces will allow students to keep 3 feet apart for social distancing. Adults and staff in the building must maintain 6 feet of space from others while in school to the greatest extent possible.

Face masks and shields must be worn at all times. Frequent mask breaks will occur during the day. Hatch said that this can be done in classrooms that have space for students to spread out more than 6 feet, go outside, or step into an empty hallway.

The schedule at Somerset Career and Technical Center has been modified to include a morning and afternoon schedule, allowing students within the district to attend the tech center with other students.

All students and faculty will be required to wear a mask at all times except when eating, drinking or taking a break. Previously, shields were also an option, but per new guidance from the CDC, shields will only be permitted for those with medical or behavioral exemptions.

Plexiglass barriers will be installed at each teacher’s desk, and hand sanitizer stations will be installed districtwide. Touchless water fountains are being installed.

The public will not be allowed in school buildings with a few exceptions.

Bus routes and transportation vehicles have been modified to allow for distancing and increased hygiene practices.

Students who are not comfortable returning to facilities have the option to work remotely. Guidance will be provided on distance learning expectations.

Board member Harold Bigelow voiced his concerns on how sports will work if students have to wear masks. It has not been decided yet by the Maine Principals Association or Maine Centers for Disease Control what restrictions will be mandated. Chairperson Lynda Quinn acknowledged that student athletes aren’t the only ones who are missing out.

“How is this going to apply to athletes with everybody huffing and puffing and sweating, wearing a mask and wearing a helmet?” Bigelow said. “… These kids want to play. What are they going to do if they’re not playing?”

Moody first addressed the question, saying that there is no clear answer just yet; this is a statewide wait, not specific to just SAD 54.

“Certainly if you apply Maine CDC guidelines for school to sports, they definitely can’t happen. There’s no question,” Moody said. “… I don’t know how it could happen now, but we’re going to wait and see what the guidelines are.”

Quinn said that band, chorus and theater students will also be missing out.

“The sad thing about that, Hal (Bigelow), is that the kids who play in the band, want to do theater and speech, sing in the chorus … they’re suffering as well,” Quinn said. “It’s not just the sports people who play sports that are dealing with this. There are a lot of kids doing a lot of extracurricular activities that are suffering as well.”

Moody confirmed this, saying that under current guidelines, band lessons and chorus will not exist.

“Things will look different and that’s not what we want, but we are committed to returning to the robust programs that we have,” Moody said. He added that there will be some music lessons, but they will not involve singing.

“Hold on to your hats. This is going to be a bumpy ride,” Quinn said. “We are going to rise above it and excel, and they will write a book about SAD 54 and how we handle COVID.”

SAD 54 serves the towns of Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock, Smithfield and Skowhegan.

Moody provided an update on the mascot selection, saying that students are now able to vote on one of nine options: Phoenix, Riverhawks, Sturgeon, Badgers, Thunder, River Drivers, Trailblazers, Fishercats and Skowhegan.

Students in grades six through 12, through their school emails, have the opportunity to choose one of the options. After they provide their feedback on the nine suggestions, the Support Services and Education Policy/Planning subcommittees will review the students’ input and make final recommendations to the board, which will then make the final decision.

The process of soliciting ideas for a new team name began Jan. 15 with a multi-step process after the “Indians” nickname was retired. The mascot selection process was temporarily halted because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Correction: An earlier version of the story said that the soft start applied to grades 7-12. In fact, the soft start applies to grades pre-K through 12 every other day for the first three weeks. After that, grades 7-12 continue in that pattern every other day by alphabet for the rest of the year, or until the pandemic subsides. Grades pre-K through six go in-person every day.

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