The MSAD 11 board of directors and school officials meet online Monday for a special meeting.

GARDINER — The Maine School Administrative District 11 board of directors gave administrators the authority Monday night to decide if schools in the district should move to a week of remote learning after the holiday break to reduce the potential spread of COVID-19.

School officials and board members deliberated for almost two hours before agreeing that if administrators were to change the remote learning schedule, it would likely be to move the middle and high schools to remote learning, while the elementary schools would stick with a hybrid schedule.

Jon Umland, Tony Viet and student representative Gwen Bolduc-Ignasiack voted against the motion.

The special board meeting was called after a survey put out by the Gardiner Teacher Administration asked staff members to judge how safe they feel operating under a “yellow” hybrid model.

Angela Hardy, the director of curriculum and instruction, lead a presentation with data from the survey. Overwhelmingly, the top three concerns from teachers were that they are afraid of getting sick, fear their families will get sick and worry about COVID-19 transmission within schools.

Some staff members also said they did not think some of their co-workers have them in mind when making decisions about coronavirus safety.

“The schools are safe, and we are following the protocols,” said Kristin Martin, the lead nurse in MSAD 11. “There is no blame when someone comes in sick. I understand, because in a normal year, we would come in with a headache or slight cough because we feel guilt when we stay home. But this year we can’t do that.”

Martin said virus transmission within district schools has been minimal, and she reminded the board it is important to keep students in school.

Martin said when the guidelines are followed, masks are worn and hands are washed, there should be little to no transmission. She pointed out, however, that transmission rates are higher among adolescents because they are able to go off and do their own things.

Gardiner-area teachers report to the administrators Monday night the results of a survey on what most concerns them about hybrid learning. Emily Duggan via Zoom

Although MSAD 11 has seen positive COVID-19 cases and has switched to a “red” designation in recent weeks, Superintendent Pat Hopkins said the switches were because of the number of staff and students who needed to quarantine, not because of the number of cases.

Hopkins and other school officials met Monday with officials from the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention to discuss positive COVID-19 cases in the district.

“A majority of the cases in the middle school were due to community spread,” Hopkins told the board. “We don’t know what activities are taking place outside of school.”

The Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention told MSAD 11 officials to anticipate the number of positive cases after Christmas to be similar to the number following the Thanksgiving break.

Gardiner Area High School, Gardiner Regional Middle School, River View Community School and Pittston-Randolph Consolidated Elementary School were all designated “red” during the last school board meeting Dec. 3.

Martin said on the Monday after Thanksgiving, one student from River View Elementary School tested positive for the virus and had siblings at the middle and high school. Because of the one family testing positive, eight students and seven staff members at the elementary school had to quarantine, as did five students and 30 students at Gardiner Area High School.

Hopkins said she was upset the staff felt she did not care about employee safety, adding that in addition to staff wellness, she has to think of her students and student’s families.

“Taking care of the staff is a big part of my job, but I also have to think of the 1,900-plus students and their families and their well-being,” she said. “They are starting to experience serious mental health issues that have come with remote learning.”

Board members went back and forth Monday night on how they felt making the week after the holiday a remote learning week.

One member, Veronica Babcock, said she would be worried about students mental health and receiving meals if the district turned to a “red” designation.

Another board member, Matthew Lillibridge, said it is important to put the cases that happened after Thanksgiving into perspective, especially having a double holiday over the winter break.

“I didn’t see the CDC briefing today, but even Stevie Wonder could see that what happened after Thanksgiving is going to be what happens after Christmas,” Lillibridge said. “If you delay it a little more, we could add some predictability in.”

Student school board member Quinton Martin, nurse Martin’s son, said he understood the concern, but emphasized the importance of staying in school.

He said some of his own friends and students that he knew to be good students are falling behind and feeling the effects of staying home because of remote learning.

“Not having activities has zombified doing work,” Quinton said. “It gets lonely and it gets hard for kids to do it. I understand wanting to be safe, so we should do whatever we can to be safe, but we should also focus on keeping the hope up and keeping the light at the end of the tunnel.”

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