Gardiner Regional Middle School in Gardiner. A plan is being formulated to return Maine School Administrative District 11 students to in-person learning four days a week. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

GARDINER — Maine School Administrative District 11 is slated to shift to in-person learning, four days a week, starting on Feb. 1, but that timeframe has one school board member concerned.

A return to increased in-person learning was discussed at the Jan. 7 school board meeting, but no plan was formed. Instead, the board unanimously approved a motion to let MSAD 11 Superintendent Pat Hopkins make the transition when she thought it was appropriate.

On Thursday, Hopkins sent MSAD 11 staff and the school board an email detailing her plan, stating the first group of students would return to in-person schooling four days a week starting Feb. 1. A survey went out to parents after the Jan. 7 school board meeting and based on the results, a letter was sent to the district community Friday outlining that plan.

Elissa Tracey

Board member Elissa Tracey said Friday — ahead of Hopkins’s letter being sent out — she thinks it’s too soon to bring students back. Her opinion is based on when the vaccine will be available to teachers and students, and concern about whether classrooms will be able to accommodate appropriate social distancing.

Tracey voted in favor of letting Hopkins make the decision, but didn’t realize the transition could come as soon as the start of February.

“I had a motion to support the superintendent on what we think is best, but then as a parent, I received a survey of what I thought about a green learning model, and my husband and I struggled to answer,” said Tracey, who has one student in elementary school and one in middle school.

According to the plan outlined by Hopkins, the first group of students to return, on Feb. 1, will be the special services cohort and prekindergarten. Kindergarten through second grade would return March 1, and grades three through five on March 15.

Students in grades six through 12 would return in April, but an exact date has not been set. She said that students in the fully remote cohort, will not be impacted.

“It’s important to remember that this plan is fluid,” Hopkins wrote in the letter. “Should circumstances change, including an uptick in positive cases in our schools, or a shortage of staff, the scheduled date for students to return may require adjustment.”

After hearing Hopkins’ plan, Tracey emailed her and MSAD 11 school board Chairperson Becky Fles to ask for a special board meeting to discuss the plan.

The next school board meeting is scheduled for Feb. 4, a week after the first group of students are set to go back.

Fles said that in order to call a special meeting, the majority of the board has to agree to do so. The majority of the board, however, did not agree, she said.

“ I know that in two separate meetings, we gave her (Hopkins) the authority to bring the administration team together so they could come together and try to pivot to green,” Fles said. “The board unanimously supported those decisions, so with that in mind, the superintendent did what we asked her to do.

“To request an emergency meeting out of a perceived over abundance of caution by one person unfortunately can’t be done because of policy…,” she added. “The majority of the board has to request it, and the entire board has been told. Nine out of 12 don’t see the need.”

At the Jan. 7 meeting, Hopkins outlined what steps would be needed to bring students back, one of which was a parent survey asking parents open-ended questions on how they would feel transitioning back to green.

“I always have felt you’ve given me the authority to that based on immediate need,” Hopkins said Jan. 7. “Just to clarify, are you comfortable with me making that decision to go green? Or is that something that you would like to bring back to the board.”

At that meeting, Tracey was in favor of Hopkins making the decision.

“I think we have been very careful and I fully support whatever you think is appropriate,” she said at the time.

The school district has reported a number of COVID-19 cases, including one this week in the middle and high school, affecting the high school boys basketball team. Students and staff have had to quarantine and sometimes are left with limited staff coverage because of a lack of substitute teachers.

But Friday, Tracey said she wished there was more discussion and didn’t realize how fast the turnaround would be. Based on discussion during a Finance Committee meeting Tuesday, she said, it didn’t seem like the district was in a position to reopen and was surprised to get a survey just a few days later.

“We have to give people the transparent information, and then they can decide what they want to do,” Tracey said. “I don’t think that we should be jumping in so soon.”

The Finance Committee, Tracey said, discussed how to return elementary school students back to school. One of the issues discussed was whether there was enough space to ensure proper social distancing.

One option Hopkins raised was the purchase of mobile classrooms. At the meeting, Tracey said, she supported the idea and said her son had had class in one.

Once she saw how quickly students would be returning to four days a week, however, she didn’t feel the same as she had.

“We’d have no room in the classroom, so we’d have to go mobile,” Tracey said. “We talked about how everyone else in the country is dealing with this issue — ‘Is there even going to be any (to purchase)?'”

In her Thursday letter to MSAD 11 staff, Hopkins said her decision was based on survey results and the timeline of the COVID-19 vaccine being available.

Hopkins said MSAD 11 is not requiring staff to get the COVID-19 vaccine, but that they will “work to make it available to all staff.”

Tracey said that even if all staff did get the vaccine, the reality of them getting their two doses before April seems unlikely considering the state’s population of older people. Teachers and educators are in Maine’s 1B phase of vaccinations.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.