Casey Curneil and her children, Aubrey Munson and Carter Munson, depart Ocean Avenue Elementary School in Portland on Friday afternoon. Curneil, whose son is a second-grader at Ocean Avenue, said she would like the schools to go to full-time in-person instruction. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

As she’s watched coronavirus cases in Maine and around the country fall, Casey Curneil has been wondering when her son might be able to get more in-person time at school. Hybrid learning has been difficult, and she worries about the social and academic impacts of screen time and time away from peers.

Working in real estate, it’s also hard for Curneil to bring her son, a second-grader at Portland’s Ocean Avenue Elementary School, and her preschool-age daughter with her to work. “For working parents, I don’t know how most people are surviving,” Curneil said on a recent afternoon as she picked her son, Carter, up from school. “At what point is this all going to be over?”

With coronavirus cases around Maine declining and vaccinations increasing, many families are asking the same question. Schools around the country are planning how to add more in-person instruction thanks to improving health metrics and months of research that have shown transmission rates in schools to be low. President Biden has also pushed for more in-person learning and has said he would like to see five days a week of in-person learning for K-8 students by the end of April.

But decisions around in-person learning are not easy. While many parents worry about the social and academic toll of the pandemic on their children and are eager to return to normal, school districts are proceeding cautiously. Physical distancing and staffing remain challenges, though the state did get some good news Friday with an announcement that school staff would be able to access dedicated vaccine clinics in the coming weeks as part of an age-based eligibility plan.

Every county in Maine is currently “green” in the state’s color-coded advisory system, meaning in-person instruction can happen as long as health and safety requirements are adhered to. While many schools across the state have offered full-time in-person education for all students, most have had to use some form of hybrid learning in order to accommodate those requirements. For at least as long as a state of emergency remains in place, the state will continue to leave decisions on instructional models to individual school districts, the Maine Department of Education said Friday.

Some New England states, meanwhile, have set firmer deadlines for when and how much in-person learning they would like to see. Massachusetts announced last week a plan to bring elementary students back for five days per week of in-person learning by April, while New Hampshire’s governor signed an executive order mandating schools offer two days per week of in-person instruction to all students starting March 8.

“We know that in person learning is the best, so it is urgent that we continue to do everything possible to ensure the most in-person learning time for our students,” Pender Makin, Maine’s commissioner of education, said in a statement. “Maine is a national leader in terms of providing continuity of classroom-based learning. One-hundred percent of our districts opened for some in-person learning in the fall, and unlike in many states where schools have remained closed entirely, our schools continue to provide every opportunity possible for students to safely learn alongside their peers.”

In recent weeks Maine’s improving health metrics have led to debates over in-person learning in several communities. The seven-day, rolling average of new coronavirus cases stood at 155 on Friday, down from a peak of 625 on Jan. 15 amid a post-holiday surge.

In Portland, a growing group of parents has been pushing for in-person classes for high school students who have been learning remotely with access to in-person supports. The Falmouth school board recently moved to formulate a plan to increase in-person time, while the Lewiston school board voted to stick with the hybrid model for the rest of the school year.

Bethany Lanpher, the mother of a first-grader in Scarborough, said she is eager to see more in-person learning for her daughter and wants the district to start a conversation about returning to school full-time. Lanpher said it has been frustrating to watch older students play sports while class time is limited, and she worries about her son, who is scheduled to start kindergarten in the fall, having to start in a hybrid model and being disengaged.

Bethany and Patrick Lanpher with their children Violet, 6, and Maverick, 4, at their home in Scarborough on Saturday. The Lanphers are hoping that the school district will increase the amount of in-person learning. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“I think the guidelines need to be adjusted by the CDC,” said Lanpher, an emergency room nurse, referring to the current physical distancing guidelines. “I support teachers and want them to be vaccinated. I would have given them my vaccine if I could have, but I think the requirements need to be changed.”

Dory Forgit, the mother of a third-grader and a fourth-grader at Longfellow Elementary School in Portland, said her family has also been growing increasingly frustrated with hybrid learning and she and her husband have struggled to piece together child care options, forcing them in some cases to send their children to their unvaccinated grandparents. Portland is expected to discuss its current hybrid model for elementary school students at a school board meeting Tuesday.

“It’s absolutely been a huge, huge stress on our family,” said Forgit, a speech pathologist at Maine Medical Center. “We’re a strong family. We talk through it as much as we can, but my husband and I are not teachers, so it’s a lot. It’s really painful to make this work schedule-wise but also to be able to advocate and help our kids access learning.”

At the same time, not all parents are eager for a return to school, especially as cases in Maine remain higher than they were in the early fall. “The variants are coming up, and they’re saying there’s another surge in the near future,” said Jennifer Maillet, whose daughter is in fifth grade at Presumpscot Elementary in Portland. She said they like the hybrid schedule and think the district should consider sticking with its plan until more people are vaccinated.

“I understand people really want to get into in-person learning, but until the surges and the variants get figured out, it’s probably good to stick with the hybrid plan at least for the rest of this year and then reassess next year,” Maillet said.

For school administrators, the decision to bring students back isn’t easy. Federal CDC guidance for schools calls for 6 feet of physical distancing to be maximized to the greatest extent possible, even though Maine guidance says 3 feet is acceptable between students when other measures, such as masks, are in place. The Maine Department of Education on Friday said the state continues to believe it is appropriate for schools to continue with the state’s distancing guidance, which provides for greater flexibility than the federal guidance, which was released in part to help schools and districts outside of Maine that are not as far along in reopening.

Greg Roderick and his son James Leighton, a second-grader at Ocean Avenue Elementary School, stand in the parking lot on Friday afternoon. Roderick said the two share office space at home when Leighton received at-home instruction. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Grace Leavitt, president of the Maine Education Association, said even with greater availability of vaccines on the horizon, it is important for schools to continue to adhere to all of the state’s health and safety requirements. She said 3 feet of physical distancing should be considered at a minimum when other mitigation efforts like masks are in place and that the lack of space in many schools makes it difficult to consider adding additional in-person time.

“We prefer more distance,” Leavitt said. “The problem with 3 feet is students in many instances are really finding it hard to stand 3 feet apart. With the hallways in some schools and passing times, it can be hard to enforce those requirements, yet that is what should be happening.”

Tension between educators and parents has added to the challenge of reopening debates in some school districts. In Falmouth, the school board passed a motion charging the district with coming up with plans for adding more in-person instruction by March 10.

Ray Fox, the teacher’s union president in Falmouth, urged the board at the meeting to engage in a collaborative process and honor its memorandum of understanding with the union, which outlines the process for making changes to the instructional model. As several parents at the meeting spoke up in favor of adding in-person time, Fox said teachers are stressed.

“We are all working overtime not just to best serve your kids, but the entire town’s kids,” he said. “I’m disheartened to hear from some (board) members tonight. Some of the public (commenters) tonight I know also were trying to participate in a staged protest of the schools right before vacation. So am I feeling the love from the board and from the town in regards to teaching? Honestly I am not.”

Falmouth Superintendent Geoff Bruno did not respond to phone calls or emails last week about reopening plans. School board chair Whitney Bruce also did not respond to a phone call or email. Fox declined to comment, citing ongoing negotiations. “In order to do something that works well for students, we need to talk to teachers,” Bruce said at last week’s meeting. “I think that is an incredibly valid point and something we need to be thinking about as we move through this.”

In Topsham-based School Administrative District 75, Mt. Ararat Middle School teacher Kirk Niese said he felt comfortable with his school’s recent plan to bring one of its two cohorts of students in at a time for an additional in-person learning day on Wednesdays. Last week was the first week of the additional day for students, and Niese said there was some adjustment, particularly when it came to students having to wear masks all day for an additional day.

Overall, though, he was happy to be able to have more in-person time with students. “The upside is being able to have these students back in school and interacting with each other and their teachers,” Niese said. “I just think it’s a lot more engaging than trying to do at-home learning on a Wednesday. I think academically it was a good move, and socially it was a good move too.”

In Lewiston, where the school board recently voted 6-2 to stay with the district’s current hybrid plan, Superintendent Jake Langlais said a number of factors weighed into his recommendation to the board, including the distancing requirements, vaccines for teachers and the logistics around trying to add in-person time.

Most students in Lewiston attend school in-person twice per week, either on Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday. Wednesdays are dedicated to teacher planning and to connect with all four cohorts of students as a group. In addition to the two cohorts that attend in-person twice per week, there are additional cohorts including a group that is completely remote by choice and a cohort of high-needs students who attend four days per week in-person.

“The ironic thing is I philosophically am very much in favor of returning to school in-person more and more while we’re safe, but logistically it is such a big puzzle and it creates a lot of gains to be in person, but it also creates a lot of losses,” Langlais said. If teachers were asked to be in-person on Wednesdays, for example, Langlais said there would be no way to create a time slot for them to prepare or meet with all students on Wednesdays. Staffing is also a challenge because of health concerns and the need to continue staffing the remote-only cohort.

The U.S. CDC has said teachers should be prioritized for vaccines, but they’re not a prerequisite for bringing people into schools. Still, some administrators say vaccines would increase safety and add to comfort levels. “I do think teachers would feel much more comfortable if they could be vaccinated earlier rather than later,” said Scarborough Superintendent Sandy Prince. “I think that would help ease the transition back.”

Scarborough students attend in-person two days per week or have the option for full remote learning. A school reopening task force is preparing to start meeting to look at ways to increase in-person time with a goal of bringing a recommendation to the school committee in mid-March. Exactly when a full return to in-person learning might be possible is hard to say.

“I too would like to see opportunities for more learning happen,” Prince said. “At the same time, we want to make sure we do it in a way that’s safe for students and an opportunity for our students to continue to learn well. I think it really takes a partnership between the school and the community to work together during these COVID times. I think that’s the intent, and we’re marching forward.”

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