WINTHROP — Ahead of the new year, Winthrop Public Schools have decided to put a “cap” on the number of students admitted into the remote learning cohort.

The decision is twofold, Superintendent James Hodgkin said, adding that it is both in part because of not having enough staff to accompany an increase in remote learners, but also due to discussion among school officials of possibly returning in person, five days a week, next year without a remote option at all.

James Hodgkin

The five staff members that are teaching the “nearly 100” remote students were hired by the school system through coronavirus relief funds that are set to expire on Dec. 30. Each teacher has a minimum of around 17 students in the elementary level and around 23 at the middle school level. High school students tune into their classes virtually at the same time as the in-person students attended.

Hodgkin said that he was expecting to lose some revenue going into the new year, losing help from the coronavirus relief funds and as a result, he was able to cut back some money so the teachers contracts could be extended for the whole academic year. Even with Hodgkin doing that, the district is still unable to hire any other teachers, budgetwise.

“Yes, we will be using district funds,” he said of the five teachers. “I have already tightened the screws for them and I can’t afford another teacher.”

Currently, Winthrop Public Schools have in-person learning four days a week, and parents have the option of switching their child into a fully remote learning method, if they please.

The school system, made up of the elementary, middle and high school, has only had one  reported COVID-19 case so far during this academic year.

Hodgkin informed the community via letter that the district would be “capping” the number of students, effective after the holiday break. Students are expected to return Jan. 4.

Those that have medical concerns are able to be an exception to the cap, but other students will be added to a waiting list. In order for students to get off the waiting list, another student from remote learning would have to switch into in-person learning.

“Winthrop wants to save money and have kids in the school, but with COVID spreading faster than ever, should the school committee be putting the budget ahead of the health of the public?” community member  Corey Rubchinuk asked.

Maine is now experiencing its largest numbers of positive COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic. Lately, the state is averaging about 400 cases per day.

Hodgkin said that one of the improvements to the school that the district was able to make with the coronavirus relief funds was to install “O2 Prime Solutions” in all but one hallway of the three schools. The only hallway that did not get the upgrade was one in the elementary school, he said, because it was already able to accept a donation of five vent units called “Beyond Guardian,” that do a similar thing to the O2.

According to Hodgkin, the O2 Prime Solution device goes in the filtration system, and emits through an electrical system that is put into the ventilator. He believes that this will minimize any coronavirus cases within the district and the system played a role in the decision on the student cap.

The system, Hodgkin said, “should kill 100% of the viruses in the air.” Per the devices’ website, the school should be able to get, “cleaner, better, indoor air quality,” as it “eliminates biological growth” through the filtration system.

Though the school is not accepting more remote learners, Hodgkin said that the district is still ready in case it turns red and every student has to go fully remote after the winter break.

“Everyone is prepared to go remote,” he said. “We have both high tech and low tech options for students at home, so if we go red, for any extended period of time, the teachers that have their classes now will have their students, and the remote students will be with their remote teacher.”


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