SKOWHEGAN — As the school board was giving its approval to move forward with high school fall sports — including cross country, field hockey, golf, soccer and 7-on-7 football — the process of selecting a mascot to represent them was moving closer to a decision as well.

Maine School Administrative District 54 students voted on nine options for a new mascot, and the results now go to two committees to narrow the choices to three.

The district’s soft start to reopening schools ends Friday, but teachers have expressed apprehension about entering the next phase on Monday, when students in kindergarten through sixth grade will attend classes in person five days a week.

Several have communicated that the hybrid model employed in the soft start left them exhausted at the end of the day and that they are frightened by the prospect of having more students in class to teach and control according to  COVID-19 rules.

STUDENT VOTE ON MASCOT

Superintendent Jon Moody presented the board with a chart of the results of the student vote on the nine options presented to them. Students in grades six through 12 were asked to pick their top choice and rank their top three choices. Moody said that out of the roughly 1,050 students able to vote, 731 — or about 70% — participated.

The results:

• Phoenix, the top choice, with 21.9%

• River Hawks, 21.5%

• Skowhegan, 19.3%

• Thunder, 12%

• Trailblazers, 7.5%

• Badgers, 5.9%

• River Drivers, 4.4%

• Sturgeon, 4.1%

• Fisher Cats, 3.4%

The process of soliciting ideas for a new team name was adopted in the fall of 2019 and began Jan. 15 with a multi-step process after the “Indians” nickname was retired. The mascot selection process was temporarily halted because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The next step is for the Education Policy/Planning Committee and the Support Services Committee to each convene and narrow the list to three suggestions, which will then go to the board of directors for a final vote.

The meetings will take place at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Skowhegan Area Middle School, with the Support Services Committee meeting in the cafeteria and the Education Policy/Planning Committee meeting in the gymnasium. The board’s final decision on the new mascot will take place at its meeting on Thursday, Oct. 8.

BACK-TO-SCHOOL UPDATE

Sept. 18 marks the end of the district’s soft-start model. Beginning Monday, students in kindergarten through grade six will be in school facilities every day, whereas grades seven through 12 will continue with the hybrid model.

All students will be provided with technology with the ability to take their devices home.

The prospect of having students in prekindergarten through grade six in-person every day under the green plan has several teachers apprehensive about dealing with the numbers under COVID-19 protocols even though the district has yet to record any positive cases.

To date, Moody said that there have been no positive cases of COVID-19 within the district. At the board meeting, he added that some students have been sent home from school because they do not pass the pre-screening for school attendance. That does not necessarily mean that they have the virus, but rather the district is just following necessary protocols.

Some have been tested, he said at the meeting, but could not provide numbers.

Board member Jennifer Poirier expressed concern with ending the soft start, saying that she has spoken with several teachers who have communicated to her that by the end of the school day they are worn out and the idea of bringing more kids into the classroom at once is frightening to them.

“We all received an email today from a teacher, and I had the opportunity to speak with a handful of other teachers as well who were very worn out already and find that they’re at burnout by the end of the day…” Poirier said those teachers were “quite frankly frightened by the idea of more kids coming into the classroom all at once because they’re having a hard enough time to keep kids 3 feet apart and keeping their masks on now,” she said. “A lot of teachers feel like they don’t have the room in their classroom to have more students and keep them safe.”

Poirier then asked what the district was doing to address this and suggested offering a roundtable-like discussion between administration and teachers to talk about safety concerns.

Moody added that at this time, shifting to the hybrid learning model for grades K-6 is not something that is being looked at.

“We feel pretty strongly that those kids are going to lose a big chunk of their education if they are forced to go hybrid,” Moody said. “We know that all of our rooms have the space to have all of the kids. What they don’t have, though, is the space to have kids in to do things the way they used to. It does feel very sterile, and it is challenging.”

Moody added that nearly all teachers across the district have plexiglass shields on their desks, allowing them to safely have students work with them in close proximity.

“It’s an imperfect system. You have kids sitting often in small desks, often cordoned off in a way that does not let them be kids,” Moody said. “If we look at a scale of what’s best for kids and the weight of that scale, I really believe that if we go to a hybrid system, that’s going to hurt kids. I know it will make it more comfortable for our staff, but I believe it will hurt kids and will have a negative impact and it may have other consequences for our staff. In that case (of hybrid learning), we would have to have staff doing remote learning and teaching kids in-person, and I don’t think that will work well.”

Additionally, Moody said, teachers in grades 9 through 12 had their typical schedules changed, meaning that they see fewer students and teach fewer courses. At the middle school, teachers were added to assist with planning time.

“My concern is that we might lose some really good teachers because of the pressure they’re under,” Poirier said.

SPORTS ALLOWED WITH COVID RULES

Cross country, field hockey, golf, soccer and 7-on-7 football are allowed under the revised Maine Principals’ Association guidelines.

The board’s recommendation for allowing sports requires all state-mandated COVID-19 precautions and sport-specific rules/modifications to be followed, including the removal of slide tackles in soccer. Additionally,

• No spectators at games, which includes fans in cars. Each sport will have a senior game, where seniors’ parents will be able to attend.

• All games will be livestreamed.

• Students who were not in school that day will need to find transportation for events and practices.

• Buses likely will not depart until 3:45 p.m., which may impact junior varsity competitions and have other consequences.

• The athletic director will use parents to staff games on a rotating and equitable basis.

• Inside activities are not allowed. Locker rooms will be used for changing/game start, but will not be open after games or practices.

• Other rules as determined by the administration to properly meet Maine CDC/Department of Education guidelines.

• The district will review the aforementioned guidelines and provide an update at the Oct. 8 board meeting.

Four board members opposed approving fall sports: Haley Fleming, Kathy Wilder, Jeannie Conley and Peggy Lovejoy.

Although the competitive football season was postponed until the spring, the MPA has allowed out-of-season play for football, including activity similar to summer rules. The athletic director is going to work to set up a six scrimmage schedule with two to three other schools.

If the state were to shift the county into a yellow designation, however, sports would be suspended altogether.

Approved clubs and activities will begin Sept. 21. Students may stay after school for extra help with teachers with permission on this date. Otherwise, they must leave campus. Facilities districtwide will generally be closed for use daily at 5 p.m.

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

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