Out of an abundance of caution and with a nod to experimentation, China’s Erskine Academy has opted for a hybrid educational model to begin the 2020-21 academic year.

All schools in the state have three different templates for reopening based on a “green, yellow, red system” in accordance with the state’s colored assessment of each county. As of now, all Maine counties are green and schools can open for fully in-person education. However, many area districts including Erskine Academy, Vassalboro and Winslow, are opting for a yellow, hybrid, model.

Erskine Academy Headmaster Michael McQuarrie said in a phone interview Monday the school “was pretty close” to starting green, but wanted to evaluate and put in practice safety measures before going fully in-person.

“We coordinate, share and collaborate with the public school administrators in the area. Of course there is a certain level of coordination with those units because they do send their high school kids here,” McQuarrie said. “In terms of going public with the plan, our program was about a week behind others because of the amount of study we put into our program with the hope and sincere desire of going green.”

Erskine Academy is a private school, but students from the towns of Chelsea, China, Jefferson, Palermo, Somerville, Vassalboro, Whitefield and Windsor get their tuition paid for by the town if they choose to attend the school.

The academy’s student enrollment of 540 consists of all Maine students, about 97% of them are publicly supported students who choose to attend the school.

Heide Hotham, registrar at Erskine Academy, displays a moose toy and a sign Monday as she inputs student information at Erskine Academy in South China. The academy is re-opening on Sept. 8. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

In light of the coronavirus pandemic, the Maine Department of Education and Maine Center for Disease Control released a set of six requirements that all schools must follow: symptom screening before coming to school, physical distancing, masks/face coverings, hand hygiene, personal protective equipment (PPE) and staying home from school when sick.

Erskine Academy purchased large tents that double as outdoor classrooms and dining space. The school’s several buildings on campus allow for one-way entrances and exits. The academy offers Chromebooks and hotspots to students who need them, but students also have the option to use their own devices.

“The other consideration is making sure that everybody is proficient and provided the technology to engage in the remote element,” McQuarrie said.

The Erskine Academy plan starts with a three-week hybrid period. Students will be split into cohorts. Last names A-K will be Cohort A, last names L-Z will make up Cohort B. There also is a fully remote option, Cohort C.

Cohort A will attend in-person classes Mondays and Tuesdays. Cohort B will attend in-person classes Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays are reserved for fully remote learning and facility sanitation, except during the first week of school.

Freshmen in Cohort A begin school with in-person learning Tuesday, Sept. 8. Freshmen in Cohort B follow with an in-person day Sept. 9. All students in Cohort A are scheduled for in-person learning Sept. 10, Cohort B Sept. 11.

The start date is a week later than usual because the school front-loaded all of the teacher workshops for training in technology and safety protocols for the year before the start of school.

Colt Pierce, with Erskine Academy’s maintenance staff, takes a measurement Monday before casing in water lines at the Home Consumer Economics building for students grades nine through 12 in South China. The work is part of a remodel to allow for better spacing and traffic flow through the room. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

“For us, like others, it was very different this past spring. We became an emergency remote system,” McQuarrie said. “Now we saw this coming, so we’ve got the training in place, the technology in place for our staff, so we’re going to work to perfect the remote piece as much as possible.”

Half of the students are transported on Erskine Academy buses for a $2 per day fee. The other half are transported by their public school systems. McQuarrie said transportation is not anticipated to be an issue.

The school suspended its international degree program before this past school year after graduating four international students in 2019. International students all stayed with host families or at a home purchased by the school, and the program remains suspended for this academic year.

“We declared a moratorium on the program for a couple of years, so we do not have the international students here in the diploma program,” McQuarrie said, “but we do have about four on an exchange program.”

The two in-person, three-day remote learning schedule begins Sept. 14 for two weeks. Erskine Academy officials plan on deciding whether to proceed to a full re-entry, green plan on Sept. 25.

“At that time, we will have collected some data concerning transportation, technology, how it has worked in terms of the space inside the building and certainly we will be getting input from the teachers … based on what their experience has been to date,” McQuarrie said.

“If we feel safety protocols have been followed with fidelity, then I would work with my board of trustees and make a recommendation of going green, or if the data suggests otherwise, we would continue with our remote hybrid.”

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