Regional School Unit 18’s first day of the 2020-21 academic year occurred Monday, but the district’s educators represented by the Maine Education Association still have safety concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.

On Thursday, the MEA and RSU 18 Education Association filed a 10-day notice addressed to RSU 18 School Board Chairperson Laura Tracy and RSU 18 Superintendent Carl Gartley to bargain over safety and working conditions as the majority of students return to in-person learning five days per week by Sept. 8.

In the request, which was obtained by the Morning Sentinel, MEA Regional Director Joan Morin wrote the RSU 18 Education Association and MEA are “demanding to negotiate over, specifically but not limited to health and safety, employee workload, workday and work year.”

“Our biggest issue, frankly, is that it’s not safe for staff and our students to reopen fully with approximately 2,300 students and follow the CDC/DOE guidelines,” Morin said in a phone interview Monday morning. “Are we setting up for possible transmission?

“One of the reasons school districts are going to a full hybrid model is that you’re so focused on safety, education is lost when you bring a full school back.”

“I don’t know of any instances where safety guidelines are not being met, so if there’s some they want to talk about, it’s not a bad thing,” Gartley said in an interview Monday morning. “This is why these processes are in place. We’ll get together and sit down and talk. If there’s issues, believe me, we want to work them out as much as they do.”

Gartley said the RSU 18 Educators Association was “heavily involved” in planning the school year and the staff’s concerns for their well being and that of the students and community at large are taken seriously.

Messalonskee High School senior Emma Parrish uses white paint to outline her parking spot Monday in the senior class section of the student parking lot at Messalonskee High School in Oakland. Each design painted was the idea of the seniors that painted their own parking spots. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Tracy said in an email that the board is “very interested” in hearing what the association will bring forth in these negotiations.

“We have included their representatives every step of the way in developing our reopening plan, which we designed based upon the recommendations and requirements of the DOE’s reopening framework (as well as with the input from our school physician), so it’s a little surprising to have received their demand to bargain now,” Tracy wrote.

“However they wish to proceed, though, we are going to continue to take all of the steps we can to reopen our classrooms in a way that is safe for everyone involved and best for the educational needs of our students.”

The meeting is in the process of being scheduled to fit with staff and school board members’ schedules. The school board next meets Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Messalonskee Middle School.

Morin and the RSU 18 Educators Association plan on addressing work expectations for teachers and support staff, looking specifically at safety responsibilities added for this year and whether those expectations are fair. For example, if teachers are responsible for in-person learning and remote learning, there may be discussions about time management. The responsibilities of support staff, custodial responsibilities and compensation issues may be up for discussion.

“It’s possible that the parties meet and have a clearer understanding and on some matters, no written agreement is needed,” Morin said. “The reason you negotiate is because the parties need to reach an agreement on things that they both agree to.”

Messalonskee High School senior Ella Smith, left, and classmate Brynn Lozinski paint their parking spot Monday in the senior class section of the student parking lot at Messalonskee High School in Oakland. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

The school board approved its reopening plan at a school board meeting Aug. 18, though Nancy Mitchell, co-president of the RSU 18 Education Association, called the plan “not safe.”

At that meeting, Mitchell said the association sent out a survey to staff. Of the 188 respondents, 15% of staff were feeling “positive” or “neutral” about the reopening guidelines and 84% were feeling “concerned” or “very concerned,” according to results of the survey obtained by the Morning Sentinel.

The Morning Sentinel also obtained an email from Mitchell sent Friday at 11 a.m. to Tracy and Gartley regarding safety. In the email, Mitchell requested the school start date be delayed until after Labor Day, following in the steps of nearby Winslow.

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In her email Mitchell shared multiple concerns about the district plan’s compliance with Maine Department of Education safety guidelines. Mitchell said the schools did not have enough cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment, the latter of which was the reason for Winslow’s delay.

Gartley said the district has “all the PPE we need” after beginning to acquire it in the spring.

“There have been a number of concerns raised about if those safety requirements are being followed, but absolutely we’ve heard concerns being raised,” MEA president Grace Leavitt said.

“The safety and welfare of our entire community is at stake,” Mitchell concluded in her email.

Mitchell directed questions for this article to Morin.

“This year is different in a lot of ways, but what’s not different is our job to make sure students and staff are safe in our schools,” Gartley said Monday. “The fact that they want to sit down and talk about safety issues is not a bad thing at all.”

Messalonskee High School senior Elizabeth Fulling uses a roller to lay down a coat of black paint on her parking spot Monday in the senior class section of the student parking lot at Messalonskee High School in Oakland. Fulling said it would take two days for her to finish the paint job which would include the Disney character ‘Stitch’ in the design. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

All RSU 18 elementary school students who chose in-person learning began Monday, with the exception of prekindergarten. The middle school and high school levels are opening with certain grades attending certain days this week, but all students who chose in-person learning will be in school together next Tuesday. The staggered start in the schedules for China Middle School, Messalonskee Middle School and Messalonskee High School were made Monday morning.

On Aug. 14, Gartley said 85% of students chose to return to fully in-person learning. The other 15% are learning remotely full-time. Gartley said Monday that number may have slightly changed, but that all classrooms in the district meet health and safety requirements.

All school districts were required to develop three reopening plans based on local and state guidelines pertaining to the pandemic, green, yellow and red. Green signifies a full reopening, yellow a hybrid and red fully remote. Gartley considers this model yellow, a hybrid. All counties in Maine were classified as “green” by the state, allowing for a full reopening. Most districts around the state still are going with a hybrid.

“What we’re doing is one of the examples the (DOE) recommended,” Gartley said. “Our goal is to get kids back in if we can. The only goal of the hybrid model is to make sure you have the number of kids in the school meet the guidelines that the state has set forth.”

In letters to the school community over the course of the summer, Gartley outlined extra safety precautions taken by the district. Buses are limited to 50 students, and capacity has been reduced by 25-30% with students assigned seats on the same bus every day. The district hired an additional 31 long-term substitute teachers, extra counselors and 20 half-time custodial workers. Gartley also said he welcomes comments and suggestions by community members.

RSU 18 serves approximately 2,500 students in eight schools in Belgrade, Rome, Oakland, China and Sidney.

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