Mark Hatch, assistant superintendent of Maine School Administrative District 54, distributes a reopening plan to school board members Aug. 6 during a board meeting at Skowhegan Area Middle School. The board met again Thursday to discuss how well the opening is going. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file photo

SKOWHEGAN — So far, the school year is off to a smooth start at Maine School Administrative District 54, as classes began earlier this week.

On Thursday, the Board of Directors gathered at Skowhegan Area Middle School to discuss how the first week has gone so far. Superintendent Jon Moody and Assistant Superintendent Mark Hatch both said it has gone well.

Moody began with a standing ovation for the district staff, who he said have worked tirelessly to make the return to school possible.

“We have never started school before in a pandemic,” Moody said. “Everything has been a first. Seeing the staff with kids and principals interacting with kids has been incredibly heartening. It is still very stressful because everything is new and changing, but the kids are learning.”

Hatch added during his updates that mask wearing, which is required, has gone well, and occasionally the elementary-aged kids have to be reminded to distance, but it is not a huge problem districtwide.

“The maintenance team and bus drivers have been doing a great job as well as the staff,” Hatch said. “Everyone is doing a phenomenal job. Between problem solving, working together and making this all work, everyone is doing excellent. When they can’t make it work, they are reaching out, and we are seeing that people are starting to settle in.”

“There are a lot of kids who aren’t used to mask wearing and social distancing, and they’re being reminded. It’s much less than a reprimand and more of a reminder, and the kids are responding to that,” Hatch said. “It is really amazing to see all of this work being implemented.”

As of Thursday night, the district has had zero cases of COVID-19, Moody said, and parents have been good about keeping kids home if they are sick. No issues have been reported so far. He provided the board with the packet of standard operating procedures provided to every school in the state through the Maine Department of Education. The packet provided is a draft that is subject to change.

“We will err on the side of communicating with (the board) more while still protecting people’s rights,” Moody said.

The soft start will run through Sept. 18.

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

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

Those who chose to learn remotely every day will begin Tuesday, Moody clarified after the meeting. This was an adjustment made to ensure that all students have the appropriate technology.

Under the green plan, students in prekindergarten through grade six will be in-person every day. Every student will have technology that they can take home.

The question was raised by a board member whether or not snow days will still happen under a hybrid learning model. Moody said that up until Dec. 30, if the district were to have a snow day, remote learning can resume on that day. Students will be fed on those days, which qualifies it as an entire school day.

For remote learners now, Moody said, sites for meal pickup are located at Mill Stream Elementary School in Norridgewock, Margaret Chase Smith School in Skowhegan and Canaan Elementary.

Moody also provided an update on the nickname selection. Students have until 3 p.m. Friday to select one of nine options provided: Phoenix, Riverhawks, Sturgeon, Badgers, Thunder, River Drivers, Trailblazers, Fishercats and Skowhegan.

After the students vote through their student portal, two school board committees will review the results and make three final recommendations to the board, which will then make the final decision. The process kicked off in January and was delayed when school facilities closed in March due to the pandemic.

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

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