Educating young minds is Jamie Routhier’s passion. It’s an opportunity the eighth-grade teacher at Messalonskee Middle School and 14-year Regional School Unit 18 faculty member loves.

Laura Parker, a parent of a ninth-grade daughter and a sixth-grade son, wants her children and their peers to get the best education possible.

Both women spoke about safety concerns Wednesday night due to the coronavirus pandemic at the outset of the Regional School Unit 18 School Board meeting at Messalonskee High School. The district represents the towns of Belgrade, Rome, Oakland, China and Sidney.

Routhier said the 3-foot distance mandated between students and transitions between class are a struggle. She suggested “a reduction in students.” Routhier does not want a divide between the school board, administration and teachers.

“It’s really hard to hear things like that when a lot of us just want a united approach,” Routhier said. “In regards to safety, we’re doing the best we can.”

RSU 18 Superintendent Carl Gartley announced RSU 18’s plans back in July and made a couple modifications since. This first week was a staggered start at the high school level, but the lion’s share of the district’s 2,500 students across eight schools return for five days per week of in-person learning come Tuesday.

Gartley said the district is following all of the guidelines and is pleased with how things are going so far. He does not want to see a community divided.

“I do not want this to turn into an us-versus-them scenario,” Gartley said. “I think we’ve got a very good plan in place. … If there’s things we can improve upon, I’m happy to do so.”

Todd Yolish, a parent of two remote learners, asked Gartley to address the remote learning students. There are problems, Gartley said, that are being worked on. For elementary school students learning remotely, the district plans to have classes and teachers dedicated to virtual learning. The older students tune in to the live classes at the schools.

“You have to remember those remote learners and make sure they’re included in the RSU 18 family,” Yolish said.

RSU 18 board member Andrew Cook suggested a report on remote learning for a future meeting, which Gartley and School Board Chairwoman Laura Tracy approved.

The overwhelming majority of attendees agreed on one principle: The community must work together.

“We’re all in a really difficult situation, and we need to figure out how to come out from this,” said Dr. Brian Gillis, an RSU 18 parent. “Let’s work together, because at the end of the day, we’re on the same team.”

PLAN PERSPECTIVES 

Routhier lost her father to the H1N1 flu and her 9-year-old son has an autoimmune disease.

“I’ve lived that tragedy,” Routhier said. “That’s my story, and I think we need to think about how much we’re willing to risk.”

For nearly an hour prior to any board discussion, a handful of teachers and parents presented their thoughts. Teachers who spoke expressed their concerns about spacing and safety. Parents who spoke overwhelmingly encouraged the district’s plan.

Parker, a registered nurse, started her comments saying her son suffered a medical emergency on the first day of school and complimented how well the RSU 18 staff handled the situation. Parker then spent a few minutes speaking about the large percentage of parents who chose for their kids to attend school in person. She commended the district’s plan and said her peers in the medical community agree that the plans are safe.

“I’m a registered nurse with occupational therapists, physical therapists, respiratory therapists, speech therapists, physicians and chiropractors who are all saying that we’ve come to a point where what we are doing, the cure for this, has become worse than the actual disease itself,” Parker said. “I can tell you without a doubt in mind, that there are people in all of the RSUs surrounding us that they are absolutely jealous of the program RSU 18 has put in.”

Two weeks ago at the most recent school board meeting, Nancy Mitchell, co-president of the RSU 18 Education Association, began the meeting with a five-minute address where she deemed the district’s reopening plan “not safe.” Without many changes to the plan, union members remained concerned, culminating with a request by the RSU 18 Education Association/Maine Educators Association (MEA) for negotiations over concerns primarily related to health and safety.

MEA Regional Director Joan Morin and Tracy confirmed a negotiation session is scheduled for Thursday night. The school board went into executive session to discuss the negotiations late in the meeting.

‘ONE STEP AT A TIME’

Wednesday’s school board meeting was held primarily in the gymnasium, but in accordance with the 50-person limit for indoor gatherings, additional community members watched and participated from three auxiliary rooms.

Dozens of Messalonskee High School students donned their Eagle gear for the meeting following the Maine Principals’ Association announcement of further delaying the fall sports season earlier in the day.

Parker said she wants to see sports played. Dr. Eric Caccamo, a father of four student-athletes, spoke in support of sports. Skip Bessey, a parent and assistant football coach at Messalonskee High School, followed with the same message about wanting sports played.

“In an unlikely event that your child may contract COVID-19, they may feel downright miserable,” Caccamo told the board. “Rest be assured that their immune system will respond.”

Board member Sara Languet of Belgrade talked about the strength of the RSU 18 district, but cautioned to “take one step at a time,” starting with settling the daily school situation.

Board member Evan Fisher of Belgrade made a motion to authorize Gartley to follow the next set of MPA guidelines. Mike Tracy of Oakland seconded the motion and it passed 6-2. John DeWitt and Christine Marden of Sidney opposed and Cook abstained.

John Lisa, a social studies teacher and athletic director at Messalonskee Middle School, addressed the board after Routhier. The 28-year RSU 18 employee described the union’s wishes for safety and the teachers’ desire for a safe experience for all.

“They want to be in classrooms, they want to be face to face, they want to be interactive in person,” Lisa said. “We are not pointing a finger in anyone’s direction, but we are saying less people in a building means that more people are safe.”

People gather in the auditorium Wednesday, one of three overflow rooms, during a Regional School Unit 18 board meeting at Messalonskee High School in Oakland. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Routhier said the middle school has 430 students coming in every day and that 11% are remote. Gartley said the district average is around 17% of students learning remotely.

Denise Caouette, RSU 18’s lead administrative assistant, never took time off. She said her position was deemed “essential” back in March. A mother of two high school students, Caouette said she and her children feel safe in school.

“We all share the same concern, which is that we all want everyone healthy and safe,” Messalonskee High School Principal Paula Callan told the board. “We all want our kids in school and everyone safe. Bottom line, to do this, we have to work together.”

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