About 100 people attend a rally organized by BackTo5, a group seeking to have children back to school five days a week. Tuesday’s rally was held in front of the Augusta Civic Center where the state Legislature has been meeting. Sam Shepherd/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — A rally urging state officials to loosen coronavirus restrictions and get Maine students back into classrooms caught the attention of some legislators Tuesday afternoon at the Augusta Civic Center.

The rally was organized by BackTo5, a group that wants to get children back in school five days a week instead of the partially remote hybrid system many schools are currently using.

About a hundred attendees, mostly wearing masks, gathered outside the main entrance to the Augusta Civic Center, where the state Legislature has been meeting. The attendees, largely parents and their children, held signs advocating for the reopening of schools with messages like “School is cool,” “I miss my friends in cohort B” and “Maine (Department of Education) gets an F.”

Schools in Maine have largely adopted a hybrid model of education, meaning instruction happens both in-person and online, but some districts — like the Oakland-area Regional School Unit 18 and Chelsea-area RSU 12 —  have been conducting classes in person five days a week.

Earlier this month, the Portland Press Herald reported that schools in Portland were moving to in-person classes four days a week. That decision came as several districts cited the state’s requirement to keep 3 feet of physical distance between students as the biggest barrier to welcoming students into the classroom.

On Monday, more than 50 lawmakers, mostly Republicans, sent a letter to the state’s Department of Education and Center for Disease Control & Prevention asking that requirement be rescinded.

State Rep. Justin Fecteau, R-Augusta, addresses rallygoers Tuesday outside the Augusta Civic Center where the Legislature is meeting. The BackTo5 group that organized the really wants schoolchildren to attend in person five days a week. Sam Shepherd/Kennebec Journal

As legislators exited the Civic Center they were met by chants of “back to school” and “five days a week,” and some, like state Rep. Justin Fecteau, R-Augusta, addressed the crowd to show support for the cause. When asked what the next step was, Fecteau urged attendees to vote for candidates that have the same enthusiasm for reopening the schools.

“Maybe this becomes their number one issue,” he said, adding that he is “pushing hard” to reopen schools. “You just have to ask your candidate, ‘where do you stand on this and prove it.'”

Carly Joyce of North Yarmouth attended the rally with her mother, Sandy Smith, and daughter Isabella, who wore a shirt saying that she was in Greely High School’s Class of 2032. Joyce said that she was hoping the rally would prompt legislators to push Gov. Janet Mills and the state Department of Education to open the schools back up.

When asked about schools being limited by the amount of space between children, Joyce said schools should get creative and find a way around the requirement to get students into physical classrooms as soon as possible.

“Education is important and the kids are the one’s losing out on this,” she said. “The schools have to get creative or the Legislature and Janet Mills have to work together to reduce the distancing guidelines.”

Smith, who said she was a former teacher from Gorham, said her granddaughter and her peers haven’t been learning what they need to learn in their three virtual day-a-week schedule.

Isabella Joyce, who wore a shirt saying she was in Greely High School’s class of 2032, stands at a rally Tuesday with her grandmother, Sandy Smith, and mother, Carly Joyce. The Joyce family were some of the roughly 100 attendees at the Augusta Civic Center pushing for schools to reopen five days a week for in-person learning. Sam Shepherd/Kennebec Journal

“I feel like if the teachers and the support staff have been vaccinated and they can go back to school and be safe, we need to have our children back in school,” she said. “I asked (Isabella) how school is going and, honestly, she said I have home school for three days and I absolutely hate it.”

BackTo5 organizer Nick Begin, a father of three daughters from Cumberland, said the group was centralized in southern Maine, but has since ballooned into all areas of the state. Begin said the group has no political affiliation, because the focus is on the well-being of children.

“We have Democrats and Republicans,” he said. “I think when you put the kids as a priority, all that goes out the window.”

Begin said he believed, citing data and science, that distancing requirements could be lowered and schools could reopen.

“We truly feel that they could reduce the distancing and we would not have a problem with the virus spreading as they say it’s going to,” he said. “Our neighboring states, like Massachusetts, have opened the doors and there’s no reason that we shouldn’t reduce the social distancing guideline.”

Begin said his daughters are struggling without being in a physical school, as well as parents who need to take time off work to care for their children. Begin said the hybrid model may be creating more community spread as parents find places to send their child, like day cares or camps.

“I can’t imagine what a single parent is going through right now,” he said. “There’s no consistency in where their children are and they’re going outside of their community to find it.”

Ayden Rand, an eighth-grader attending Oak Hill Middle School in Sabattus, said the hybrid model has been hard, especially because he can’t see his friends during the week. He also said he did not feel he will be prepared for high school after he is promoted from middle school.

“I feel like I haven’t learned as much as I should have this year,” Rand said.

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