The Augusta Board of Education conducts its meeting Wednesday night via the Zoom videoconferencing platform. Zoom meeting screenshot

AUGUSTA — After a successful trial following Thanksgiving, Augusta’s public schools will use a remote learning model two days before and two weeks after the winter break.

The Augusta Board of Education agreed Wednesday night to the plan, and to close school two days early — Dec. 21 and 22 — before for winter break.

Remote learning is scheduled for Thursday, Dec. 17, and Friday, Dec. 18, before the start of break.

When school returns to session Monday, Jan. 4, students will be learning remotely until returning to the hybrid model Tuesday, Jan. 19, a day after the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday.

As discussed at Wednesday night’s meeting, Augusta school officials found having a remote week after Thanksgiving decreased the likelihood COVID-19 would spread among the school communities.

Superintendent James Anastasio said he was confident having the remote-learning week after Thanksgiving helped control cases of COVID-19.

Anastasio urged the Board of Education to consider remote learning for the two weeks following winter break as COVID-19 cases continue to increase in Maine.

“As we looked at what was happening across the state, a number of districts had to go remote unplanned because of the cases popping up that week,” Anastasio told the board. “We did see some cases, but they were popping up at the end of the week, so they didn’t have any impact because the individuals were not at school.”

Anastasio updated the board on the COVID-19 cases within the Augusta Public Schools as of Wednesday afternoon, which were:

• Cony Middle and High School: Six students with COVID-19 and seven staff members are being monitored. Sixteen students were within close contact of a positive coronavirus test and the school is monitoring them.

• Sylvio J. Gilbert Elementary School: One positive case and seven students and one staff member in quarantine.

• Lillian Parks Hussey Elementary School: Two staff members with COVID-19 and five students in quarantine, with the potential for two more to be in quarantine after being in close contact with a positive case.

• Lincoln Elementary School: One positive COVID-19 student who was already in isolation. Three are in quarantine from travel, and five staff members are in quarantine after being in close contact of a case.

• Farrington Elementary School: One positive staff member and one staff member in quarantine and 19 students in quarantine. One student has COVID-19.

Augusta’s public schools have been operating under a hybrid-learning model, with two cohorts spending two days at buildings and three days of remote education.

Parents have had the option to have their children attend school only remotely.

Cony Assistant Principal Gabe Levesque said the number of students who are studying remotely is increasing daily. He said 275 Cony students, about 27%, are full-time remote learners.

Cony Principal Kim Silsby said she has had trouble finding people this week to cover for staff members who are out of school for any reason, including sickness or following coronavirus guidelines.

Silsby said she was worried about the health and well-being of staff members and students at Cony as stress levels increase due to concerns related to the coronavirus.

“It’s been very challenging for staff, and we are very worried about where we are,” she said. “I want to be honest about that.”

School officials said teachers have felt overwhelmed by remote-learning days, especially when teaching methods are changed at the last minute.

Anastasio said planned remote learning time is easier for teachers and could help reduce stress because it gives them time to prepare lessons and be ready to see every student remotely.

“With the stress levels for teachers and staff, the higher the stress, the lower the level of education,” Anastasio said. “That’s just predictable.”

The Board of Education opted to add the two days to winter break — Dec. 21 and 22 — as districtwide “mental health days,” with the stress on teachers in mind.

Board member Pia Holmes said the early switch to remote learning and the additional days off are needed.

“I think it’s bad out there,” Holmes said of the increase in COVID-19 cases. “Rather than see more people affected, I would, soon as possible, be in favor of fully going remote.”

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