Starting April 8, the Vassalboro Community School will no longer have blue and white cohorts.

As districts statewide evaluate their learning models while COVID-19 vaccination rates rise, Vassalboro Community will transition from a hybrid model to in-person learning five days per week, the school announced Monday. Students learning fully remotely may continue to do so.

“Everybody, I believe, is happy that we’re going back full-time,” said Sarah Grant, the mother of two children at Vassalboro Community School. “It’s definitely time.”

A letter was posted on the Facebook page of Vassalboro Community School on Monday, March 29, along with next month’s calendar showing the last few cohort days in March and no cohort designated days in April.

Vassalboro Community School enrolls 395 students from the town of Vassalboro in grades PreK-8. Approximately 25% of the school’s students are learning fully remotely. In the next few days, there will be communications coming from the school.

“The decision to go back — we’ve always wanted students back in as safely and judiciously as we could do it,” Vassalboro Community School Superintendent Alan Pfeiffer said. “The whole year has been agonizing on so many facets of everything, so for me, it’s how do we get more students back in while safeguarding their safety and our staff’s safety.”

The front entrance to the Vassalboro Community School in August. After months of hybrid learning, the school announced Monday it plans to transition to in-person learning five days a week beginning in April. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file Buy this Photo

Results from a survey shared at a January School Board meeting demonstrated the community wanted more in-person learning, but teachers wanted to stay hybrid. Since the start of the school year, Vassalboro Community School has operated in a hybrid model with students in blue and white cohorts alternating days of in-person learning.

The administrative leadership team made the call to go five days full-time. A school board vote was not required, but the decision was made in concert with health experts from the Maine Center for Disease Control, Department of Education and more.

Pfeiffer said there was “an Aha! moment” when state and federal standards aligned in terms of distancing. In the classroom, the U.S. and Maine CDCs recommend at least 3 feet of spacing between students and 6 feet between students and adults. Initially, the school operated with 6 feet of distance between students.

Grant has two daughters, kindergartener Mariskah-Averil and Mikkah-Isabella, a second grader. Grant’s older daughter has an Individual Education Plan. After struggling through remote learning days, it’s likely she will have to repeat second grade.

Grant said her older daughter regressed socially, emotionally and academically. Grant’s younger daughter: “excelling.”

“We’re so glad they’re going back full-time,” Grant said. “Vassalboro has struggled to meet the needs of special education children. Clearly, they can only do what they can … They did do what they have to do to keep our kids healthy and safe.”

Shannon Pooler, the mother of a fourth grader, moved back to Vassalboro this past summer. After starting the year on the high honor roll, her daughter’s grades dropped due to a “lack of interest.” Pooler believes the return to every day, in-person learning will spark a desire to learn.

“Since the phone call yesterday, she is so very excited,” Pooler said. “She stated ‘Yay, now I can enjoy school again, and mom I’ll get better grades’ with a huge smile on her face. That alone made us very happy.”

Not all parents see the change as completely beneficial. Megan Reed, the mother of a second grader, is a teacher at Hussey Elementary School in Augusta. She expressed skepticism about the school’s letter, noting that it said the school would follow CDC guidelines but did not say how. The letter did say more details were to come, and Pfeiffer confirmed there will be more information shared in the coming days.

Reed teaches half in-person and half remote. Her husband teaches fully in-person in Regional School Unit 18. Reed expressed skepticism about spacing for additional students at lunches, recess and on buses.

“I feel like if they’re going to send out this fairly big news, they should probably add to it and be a little more transparent,” said Reed, whose child is in second grade. “I feel like this was just dropped: ‘Hey, we’re going to do this.'”

All safety requirements will be followed, no matter what, Pfeiffer said.

“We know we can bring in more students, five days a week with a 3 foot student desk to student desk,” Pfeiffer said.

With more students attending classes in-person each day, Clayton Rice expects some changes. A bus driver with the Vassalboro Community School for the last three years, Rice said his job will essentially go back to normal.

The CDC allows 26 students per bus, one student per seat. Siblings may sit together. Rice’s route has 34 or 35 students. He expects having to do a double run.

“The hours would be longer and some of the (students) may not get to school on time,” said Rice, who believes some students could arrive 10-15 minutes after the 8 a.m. start to each day. “We’re working with the principal and the superintendent on issues that we have.”

Pfeiffer confirmed all safety measures will be followed.

Oakland-based Regional School Unit 18 has offered in-person learning five days per week since the start of the year along with a fully remote option. Most area public school districts have operated in a hybrid model similar to Vassalboro Community Schools. The Winslow Public Schools announced an indefinite extension of its hybrid model in September.

Vassalboro Community School’s shift to extended in-person learning comes as districts statewide make similar jumps. Unity-based Regional School Unit 3 transitioned to four-day-a-week in-person learning earlier this month. Portland Public Schools, Maine’s largest district, announced earlier this week that elementary and middle school students would go back to in-person learning four days per week.

“There’s been a lot of tipping points along the path of this entire event the last 13 months,” Pfeiffer said. “A bunch of combinations of so many different things, and none of the decisions that have been made were made lightly.”

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