NORTH ANSON — The superintendent in Regional School Unit 74 has called on Gov. Janet Mills and Maine’s congressional delegation to reconsider social-distancing requirements in an effort to get more students back into the classroom full time.

Mike Tracy, superintendent in Regional School Unit 74, has written a letter to the governor and Maine’s congressional delegation asking that social distancing be reconsidered so students can attend school in person full time. Morning Sentinel file photo

Mike Tracy sent a letter dated Feb. 11 to Mills, Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden to address mandates for in-person instruction, and other issues faced by those living in RSU 74 communities, including Anson, Embden, New Portland, North Anson and Solon.

Tracy wrote in his letter that drug abuse, food insecurity, mental health and domestic violence are some of the “social trends” that “directly affect conditions in homes across America.” 

RSU 74 has four schools: Solon Elementary, Garret Schenck School in Anson, Carrabec Community School and Carrabec High School in North Anson. Tracy wrote that enrollment in his district has significantly decreased while failure rates have increased.

During the 2019-20 school year, the enrollment in RSU 74 was 623 as of Oct. 1, 2019. A year later, it had dipped to 561.

“We have typically seen a 2-3 student reduction in student population annually during the last five years,” Tracy wrote. “So the excessive reduction is most likely due to COVID-19.”

Today, about 18% of the district’s students, or about 100, are learning remotely, which has decreased from what was once about 25%, or 140 students.

The district’s back-to-school plan found on its website, dated October 2020, outlines expectations for families to follow under hybrid and remote learning models.

Under the district’s hybrid model, students in grades kindergarten through eight attend classes on Tuesday and Thursday or Wednesday and Friday. Mondays are reserved for teacher preparation and deep cleaning of buildings.

The social-distancing guidelines at schools require 3 feet between students, and 6 feet between teachers and others.

Students at Carrabec High School are operating similarly: 50% are present every other day. Students at home are assigned work and have check-ins with staff.

One of Tracy’s main concern is the time students are spending at home, especially given social issues and trends affecting conditions at homes within his district and across the state and country.

“I bring this to your attention to help illustrate that at the same time in which we see an ‘uptick’ in these negative social conditions, we are unable to have children in our schools at full capacity, full time,” Tracy wrote. 

According to a report from the Office of the Maine Attorney General, drug-related deaths during the first half of 2020 compared to the second half of 2019 increased by 26%.

This same report shows “opioid epidemic is a serious public health emergency, made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Advocates for domestic violence survivors report that people living with domestic abuse “are really facing much greater risk” due to the pandemic, according to information published in April 2020.

In his letter, Tracy noted the increase in the number of people with food insecurities in Maine increased by 38% from 2019 to 2020.

“The data shows that many homes across our state have these social concerns and there’s an uptick (in those numbers),” Tracy said Monday in a telephone interview. “Those incidences are happening in the homes and yet at the same time, we’re not allowed to take the kids out of the homes and have them in the safe space of the school, where we also know there are less instances of (community) transmission.”

Tracy has encouraged the governor and the congressional delegation to consider social-distancing requirements in schools, which, if reduced, would allow schools to have more students in person at the same time.

Understanding the seriousness of the coronavirus, Tracy said Maine children are negatively impacted by the disease, even if they never contract it.

When it comes to after-school athletics, Tracy said, “There is more flexibility in participation than there is during school.”

 

“If we know homes are not safe and schools are safe, why are we not advocating for kids to be in schools?” Tracy said. “It’s hard to know this information and then not advocate for it.”

Tracy cited another struggle within the district: Students failing classes.

“We have experienced a much-higher-than-normal failure rate,” Tracy said. “This includes remote learners who are failing, on average, two times more than their ‘in-person’ counterparts.”

The number of seniors who were not eligible for graduation as of Feb. 11 was twice what is typical for this time of year, according to Tracy.

“Our staff is working hard to help these students, but it remains concerning,” he said.

Because students are not in school regularly, it is difficult for staff members to monitor their social and emotional well-being. Districtwide, Tracy said, about 30% of in-person students failed one or more classes, while 50% of remote learners have failed one or more.

“This is after the tremendous effort by school staff to accommodate and engage learners,” Tracy said.

According to Kelli A. Deveaux, communications director for the state Department of Education, students’ grades are not reported to the department, and it has no data to compare Tracy’s concerns about failing grades in RSU 74 with student performance in other districts.

“I can only speak for my local school district. There are thousands of our Maine children negatively impacted by the disease who will never contract it,” Tracy wrote. “I believe that this impact is due, in part, by the physical distancing mandate. Although I do not want this to be seen or taken politically in any way, the idea is that students who will never contract the illness are being harmed by not being in school regularly or at all this year.

“If we know negative social factors have increased in homes, why wouldn’t we advocate for our students to be back in school? Once I came to knowledge of this information, it is hard to be silent about it.

“We must have all of our students back into our schools, and there is no more time to waste.”

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