Children of employees afforded special accommodations during the pandemic has raised concerns among residents of RSU 9 based in Farmington.

The district is allowing the children of some employees to attend school five days a week while others are required to study remotely two or three days a week.

“Not only does this contradict the idea of splitting the children up to prevent a COVID outbreak by allowing the transmission between the two groups,” a Regional School Unit 9 resident wrote to the Sun Journal’s tip hotline, “also it is known that these are the children of employees.”

Lewiston Public Schools Superintendent Jake Langlais. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

But this district is not alone in offering flexible work arrangements to avoid staff shortages. Lewiston Public Schools and RSU 16 based in Poland have made similar accommodations.

Auburn, School Administrative District 52 based in Turner and the Spruce Mountain School District based in Jay have not.

Lewiston Superintendent Jake Langlais said about 50 of the district’s 5,400 students are attending four days a week.

Nearly 80% of Lewiston families prefer in-person instruction, he said.

“We needed to find a balance between our need for educators and our availability of educators,” he said.

“If we were unable to make some accommodations, many of our staff would qualify for (Families First Coronavirus Response Act) leave and be unavailable to do the work of educating the rest of our kids,” Langlais said.

The leave act applies to people who have child care challenges because of COVID-19.

That is the issue in RSU 9, Superintendent Tina Meserve said.

She said “a few” education technicians’ children are attending school five days a week because these families could not find child care.

“We had 20-plus special ed tech positions open, and I didn’t want to lose them,” she wrote in a letter to the board of directors who had heard complaints from constituents.

She told the board that the children of three ed techs were attending school full time in person but declined to confirm that number.

“I don’t think the number is relevant and it is so small that it feels like I’m providing identifiable information about a personnel matter,” she said Wednesday.

RSU 9 Superintendent Tina Meserve Kennebec Journal file photo

She said the district has received no money to pay for child care for employees.

“When the child care money was announced, we did have an administrator agree to check into options in the community, but there was no outcome for that,” she said.

She said in her letter to the school board that she had talked to the district’s lawyer to make sure there were no legal issues.

“He said it was within my purview, and other districts are working creatively with staff, as well,” she wrote. “There is no cost to the district.”

The concerned parent, Michael Whelpley of Wilton, said in an email to the Sun Journal that SAD 9’s concession to allow certain students to learn in-school five days contradicts “the idea of splitting the children up to prevent a COVID outbreak by allowing the transmission between the two groups.

“If you’re going to allow certain kids to go with both groups then why not allow all the children to go all week? There is no point in trying to separate them if the safety protocol is being broken anyway,” he wrote.

Meserve defended the district’s position, saying that, “as an employer, I can offer flexible work arrangements to my employees when possible.”

Citing the potential that employees who could not be accommodated might have to take extended leave, creating staff shortages, Meserve said, “I am proud that we were able to support employees in hard-to-fill, essential worker positions. All school positions are considered essential workers but we have a significant shortage of special educational technicians with approximately 20 open at this time.”

RSU 16 Superintendent Kenneth Healey said some employees’ children in that district (Poland, Mechanic Falls and Minot) are attending four days a week while others go two days and learn remotely the rest of the week.

“This is necessary to keep as many as possible of our teachers working four days a week as in-person instructors,” Healey said.

Without the accommodation, the district might have had to go fully remote for all students, which was the least preferred model, he said.

He said the students who attend four days a week are in classes with their cohorts two days a week and work remotely in school buildings the other two.

Other districts do not offer the accommodation.

The Spruce Mountain School District (Jay, Livermore and Livermore Falls) has not allowed any staff members’ children to attend outside their cohorts, Superintendent Scott Albert said last week.

RSU 73 Superintendent Scott Albert. File photo

However, one staffer’s child is at school during off days and is watched by a high school student who is paid by the employee, Albert said.

“If we didn’t allow this, we would have a shortage of staff because the (Families First Coronavirus Response Act) law allows people time off if they can’t find day care,” he said.

SAD 52 Superintendent Kimberly Brandt said no students attend in person outside their cohorts. The district is “almost” fully staffed, she said. All schools in the district (Turner, Greene and Leeds) were closed this past week because of four cases of COVID-19.

The Auburn School Department does not allow the option of employees’ children attending outside their cohorts, Assistant Superintendent Michelle McClellan said Tuesday.

“If they qualify, they have the option of free child care during school hours due to the COVID Relief Childcare grant,” she said.

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