Kristina Parker began her Messalonskee High School experience masked up, socially distant from her peers and abiding by the maze of one-way traffic through the hallways. Nonetheless, the 14-year-old Sidney resident remained genuinely thrilled about the opportunity to attend her first day of high school, and every day, in person.

“I like being at the school, socializing and being with people in class,” Parker said in an interview. “There was a lot to think about in the hallways trying to social distance and coming into the classrooms with hand sanitizing, but once we got to our desks we were able to sit down and pay attention as normal.”

Parker was among the first batch of students in central Maine to return to the classroom this week after the coronavirus pandemic forced the closures of schools across the nation six months ago.

Messalonskee High School freshman Kristina Parker. Courtesy photo.

Regional School Unit 18, which includes Messalonskee High School in Oakland, is one of a handful of local school districts that opened this past week. Most others are scheduled to open over the next week or two. As a part of the district’s phased reentry at the high school level, Parker attended school Monday and Tuesday and will be back five days a week after Labor Day.

Most area districts are running a hybrid model. A few, such as RSU 18, allow all students back five days per week and offer a remote option. Others, like Vassalboro Community School, plan to have half of their students in school each day. Some schools plan on increasing the number of in-person students in a week or two, others a month or more.

In an informal poll of 23 school districts in the the region, five offered an option for five days of in-person learning and the other 18 districts adopted a combination of in-person and remote or fully remote learning for all students.

Approximately 800 of RSU 12’s students across five schools started Wednesday, with students returning to the classroom five days a week. The district rented tents for spacing purposes.

“We were all pretty nervous, and it was a little bit of a surprise that it all went so smoothly,” Superintendent Howard Tuttle said. “For me, I was pleasantly surprised at how well the students adapted to all the new rules and things like that. I’m sure we’ll have more lessons along the way.”

In RSU 18, where most students returned to the classroom on Monday, students have the option to return to school for in-person learning five days per week or to learn fully remotely.

Kinks are still getting worked out, but there haven’t been major obstacles yet to the school reopenings. Over the past couple weeks, the RSU 18 Educators Association requested bargaining with the school board and administration over safety concerns related to the coronavirus. The first confidential meeting occurred Thursday with another scheduled for Sept. 17, according to both the union and school board. There also was a spirited board meeting that resulted in an overwhelming message of a desire for unity.

Emma Parrish uses white paint Monday to outline her parking spot in the senior class section of the student parking lot at Messalonskee High School in Oakland. Seniors have the option to paint their own parking spots. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

A few districts are allowing all students back for in-person learning five days per week if they choose, including RSU 18 (which serves Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney); RSU 12 (Alna, Chelsea, Palermo, Somerville, Westport Island, Whitefield and Windsor); Maine School Administrative District 13 (Bingham and Moscow); and RSU 82/MSAD 12 (Jackman and Moose River Valley), which is not offering a fully remote option.

All Maine counties but York are designated “green” and may fully reopen. Health experts from around the state seem confident in the state’s guidelines, though few are choosing to bring everyone back to start.

The statewide coronavirus case rate was 34.6 per 10,000 people as of Friday. Kennebec County was at 15.6, seventh highest out of the 16 counties, and it has the second highest hospitalization rate in the state.

With an enrollment of just 118 students in grades K-12 at the Forest Hills Consolidated School in Jackman, RSU 82/MSAD 12 Superintendent/Principal Thad Lacasse is optimistic about students returning Tuesday.

“We’re feeling great we were able to meet all the guidelines set forth by the Department of Education, and we’re ready to go,” Lacasse said. “Our enrollment is small anyways and that’s helped us to do completely in-person instruction.”

Most other local districts — such as Skowhegan-based MSAD 54, which had a successful first week, and Augusta, Waterville and Winslow school departments, which start next week — are having students back half the time in cohorts.

After a person tested positive in RSU 74, school was delayed a week until Tuesday, with a similar plan to teach students in cohorts.

Many schools plan on revisiting their path forward and consider fuller reopening after a few weeks.

“I would say that when the kids got here, it ended up being easier than I had built it up to be,” said Ryan Libby, a math teacher and head football coach at Skowhegan Area High School. “The week of teacher work leading up to the students coming was a lot more intense than kids in front of you.”

MSAD 59, which serves Madison, is one of those districts starting school with a more traditional hybrid model. Starting this past Wednesday, half of the district’s students attended in-person school on alternating days.

“I think there was so much anticipation and nervousness, that’s been totally put … at ease with kids coming back, wearing masks and cooperating,” MSAD 59 Superintendent Bonnie C. Levesque said. “We had a lot of antsy feelings about everything, but getting back everybody has released a lot of that tension.”

RSU 19 Superintendent Mike Hammer said staff did an extra five days of professional development this week. The district, which serves Corinna, Dixmont, Etna, Hartland, Newport, Palmyra, Plymouth and St. Albans, begins Tuesday with a hybrid model.

“We’re ready. I just think we need kids back in the district,” Hammer said. “I’ve heard from other superintendents that once they started, the anxiety goes away and we get back into our routines. I’m looking forward to that.”

 

LEARNING EACH DAY

As school districts across the state of Maine continue through the reopening process, some are allowing more students back than others despite all being allowed to reopen in full. Regardless of the opening model chosen, each school must adhere to health and safety guidelines outlined by the state and Center for Disease Control.

Health experts say that as long as the guidelines are followed honestly and to the best of a district’s ability, students should be safe.

“It’s a pandemic with a new virus, so we’re learning something new each day,” said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, senior vice president of community health at MaineHealth and a former Maine CDC director. “Based on what we know now, which may be different tomorrow, if the pandemic activity is low and the schools adhere to the six principles that they should be able to open successfully.

“However, we know that if the pandemic surges … when it gets up to a certain level of activity, even if you have all those strategies in place, so there’s only so many of those dials that you can turn up and down.” 

But Steve Diaz, chief medical officer at MaineGeneral Health, said there’s no such thing as a risk-free environment.

“The idea is to put a plan in place which mitigates the risk and makes it as low as possible, but it’s impossible to make it zero,” Diaz said. “Having said that, yes, I think if schools follow plan as outlined, then they’ll create the safest environment possible.”

The Maine Department of Education and CDC outlined six mandatory guidelines for school districts to follow.

Those include symptom screenings by students and staff before and after school; distancing of 6 feet between adults and 3 feet between students; hand hygiene; using personal protective equipment, known also as PPE; wearing face coverings at all times; and staying home when sick and until fully recovered.

Kelli Deveaux, a spokesperson for the Department of Education, said, “Each school must take into consideration their abilities to meet the six required health and safety measures,” as well as “the expectations for hybrid and remote learning, and adherence to all relevant executive orders issued by the governor, including indoor and outdoor maximum capacities in any one space.”

Over the summer, school districts made three different color-coded plans: green, yellow and red. Green plans were for fully in-person instruction, yellow plans for a hybrid model and red plans for fully remote learning. Despite all of Maine’s 16 counties initially being designated “green” and allowed to reopen in full, few chose to do so. Within the past week, York County was downgraded to yellow.

“I would say there’s always going to be a risk because that’s what this pandemic is, but those six safety requirements have to be implemented, followed and enforced,” said Grace Leavitt, president of the Maine Educators Association. “It’s not really a question of whether you’re a big school or a small school. It’s a question of if you’re able to enforce those minimum requirements to keep people safe.” 

 

PROTECTIVE STRATEGIES

In Portland, the state’s biggest district, grades 10-12 will learn mainly remotely. That is because the safety guidelines could not be met to have more students attend school.

Dr. Laura Blaisdell, who has two sons attending private school in Portland, understands the situation as a parent and a medical professional. Of her parent peers, she said parents are split in thirds between wanting their kids back in school, desiring fully remote learning and a combination of in-person and remote learning. As for her medical peers, they “tend to feel more comfortable with children in schools.” In addition to academics, school provides an environment for social and emotional development, nourishment and mental health prosperity.

“That is why the American Academy of Pediatrics supported the challenge to open schools in the safest way possible,” Blaisdell said. “Now whether schools can follow the requirements is important to acknowledge, to acknowledge that many schools don’t have the resources, capacity or funding to make these changes at this point in time.”

Blaisdell said the most important part of this situation is for everyone to practice empathy and understanding toward one another.

Variables beyond the actual classroom expectations could create problems.

Pat Endsley, president of the Maine Association of School Nurses, is the school nurse at Wells High School. She said as long as CDC/DOE safety plans are properly followed, then there isn’t an extra risk to having students back in school. 

“We’re going back five days, but I feel we have a good plan in place,” Endsley said. “We’re meeting the guidelines and we’ll see how it goes. It’s going to look different in every community based on transmission rate and how safely they’re taking the precautions.”

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