NORTH ANSON — Regional School Unit 74’s board of directors convened Wednesday evening for a special school board meeting to discuss the third phase of the district’s reopening plan.

Mike Tracy Morning Sentinel file photo

Discussions focused on synchronous versus asynchronous learning models for both hybrid and fully remote scenarios, remote/hybrid learning expectations, assisting teachers and other learning staff, and how to provide as many opportunities for students as possible given the circumstances.

Somerset County was recently designated “yellow” under the Maine Department of Education’s reopening advisory system, meaning there is a moderate level of community risk and schools should consider precautions.

Carrabec schools are operating under the second phase of their reopening plan. Under this plan, students in kindergarten through fifth grade are in their classrooms Tuesday through Friday and are dismissed at 12:30 p.m. On Mondays teachers prepare, connect with remote students and clean their classrooms.

Grades six through eight attend school Tuesday through Friday, with 50% of the student population studying under a hybrid model. These students are dismissed at 2:30 p.m. One cohort meets Tuesday and Thursday and the other Wednesday and Friday.

Grades nine through 12 attend school five days a week under a hybrid model and are dismissed at 2:30 p.m. Like many districts statewide, educators in this district are utilizing SeeSaw and Google Classroom platforms for online learning.

“I’m feeling good, we’re doing okay,” Superintendent Mike Tracy said. “If you could see me under the mask, you’d see that I’m smiling. It seems like administration sounds like we’re only dealing with problems and negativity, and I don’t want that to be the spirit of what it’s about.”

The next phase in the district’s reopening proposal includes a plan to have students in kindergarten through fifth grade attend school full time, four days a week, giving them about two extra hours a week at school facilities.

Under phase three as it currently stands, grades six through eight will operate under a hybrid model, with the middle school matching what the high school is doing.

On Wednesday, board members discussed changes they hope to see in Tracy’s proposal for the third phase of reopening, which he will present at the Dec. 2 meeting. Tracy planned to meet with school staff Thursday afternoon to discuss ideas that they have as well as what they need to continue under a hybrid or remote model.

A few members of the board, which met in-person and also had members Zoom in, expressed their concerns about not having additional staff to assist with hybrid and remote learning. Tracy has previously stated that the district’s philosophy is to have their teachers working with their students as well as not excluding the remote learners.

Another element to hybrid learning is the communications from school to home. Tracy and other administrators talked about the efforts made by staff to reach parents of students.

Like districts statewide, Tracy said that remote learners are struggling comparatively to those in-person. He shared the failure rates within the district with the board members and said that some of this could be that the grading expectations this term are different from when the district shifted to remote learning in March as well as the assistance the students may or may not be receiving at home. Additionally, some of the curriculum may have changed for some classes.

“I think our teachers have high standards. I’m very, very, very glad that they haven’t recanted on their standards,” Tracy said. “This could be a multiple of factors. We have changed some of the curriculum, adding fourth quarter stuff to this year to catch kids up.”

He added, “We’re holding people accountable this quarter, and I think we’re going through a process of getting back into school.”

Keeping students engaged at home is also a struggle, one administrator said.

“It’s tough to really engage students, especially in a remote setting,” Carrabec Community School Principal Keith Mahoney said. “Now that we’re trying to get them back in school mode, they’re missing out on assignments. This is not just a Carrabec issue.”

He added that his wife, who teaches at another district, also struggles with the same issues.

One board member added that problems with technology and internet as well as the home environment could also be factors. Staff also spend multiple hours a week on the phone trying to connect with families.

“We’re not suggesting that the supports aren’t there,” Tracy said. “When I have social workers that are making Zoom calls as well as house calls with food … I don’t want the board to think that the staff isn’t exhausting themselves.”

Tracy said that administrators are working on ways to assist those students and allow them to come in for additional help while still abiding by safety guidelines.

“Unity is important to me. It’s not me against the board or against the community, it’s us,” Tracy said. “I don’t know what we need, but we’re swinging every bat at every ball. We are in this social conundrum, and we’ve exhausted ourselves. But we do have some things that we are going to try.”

Tracy said that he is also hearing from teachers that though it may be helpful to have more help, many teachers do not want to give up their current students.

As for hiring staff to help with remote learning, no clear recommendation has been made nor will one be shared until Dec. 2, Tracy said. He is trying to balance the needs of the board and the community as well as what the teachers working with the students need.

“It’s a conundrum,” he said to the board. “My teachers are telling me that (phase three) is going to be hard on them. They don’t want to lose their kids.”

He described phase three as being 0 to 60 and explored staying within the confines of phase two, but no ultimate decision was made.

“Do we stay where we’re at and stay with what we’re doing now, or do we do something else?” Tracy said.

With hybrid and remote learning, the board has also grappled with synchronous learning versus asynchronous learning. Having the synchronous option allows students to tune into what’s happening in-person as if they are there. The concern that has previously been expressed about this is privacy.

Hiring additional staff for hybrid learning would likely mean that remote students are taken from the hybrid classroom that they’ve bonded with and moved to another. This concerned some, saying that it’s isolating some students. Tracy said some of the feedback he’s received about this from teachers is that they do not want any of their current students to be taken from their classroom because of the connection they’ve made.

The board also had conversations about the language of their remote learning policies. They decided to include that if Somerset County was to be deemed “red” under the state’s school reopening plan, the board can make the call to shift to remote learning.

Tracy and school administrators within the district say that they are prepared to shift to a “red” designation if it were to happen.

“We want staff to be able to do this in a way that is meaningful and makes sense,” Tracy said. “We are working on a recommendation and trying to put all of the pieces together with the board’s feedback for Dec. 2’s meeting.”

By the end of the two-hour meeting, nothing was decided as the meeting served to share ideas before Tracy meets with teachers and ultimately comes up with his final proposal, which will be shared at the next regular board meeting.

RSU 74 serves the communities of Anson, Embden, New Portland, North Anson and Solon.

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