AUGUSTA — Students in the city’s schools will keep learning with a hybrid model for the rest of the year.

That was the decision made by the Augusta school board of directors Wednesday night, after hearing presentations from school officials about various scenarios that would allow students to return to school for in-person learning five days a week.

Augusta Superintendent James Anastasio tasked school principals to determine what it would take for full in-person learning about a month ago, when coronavirus cases were receding. Initially, the school department believed students would be able to utilize classroom and cafeteria space to create appropriate distancing measures.

But ultimately school officials felt it “wasn’t feasible” to change the school schedule on parents, students and staff again for the last 40 days of school.

“People have their own opinions, and they’re all right. No one is wrong, but someone has to say, ‘Where is the biggest risk? Given where we are, what would harm the most people?'” Anastasio said. “My recommendation is to stay the course, and that’s not what I thought four weeks ago.”

In order to bring students back, the schools have to follow the six-step guidelines from the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention and Department of Education. It includes symptom screening, physical distancing of 3 feet between students and 6 feet between adults and students, masks and facial coverings, hand hygiene, personal protective equipment and following guidelines if the student contract COVID-19.

Anastasio said at Wednesday night’s meeting and at Tuesday night’s meeting with Augusta City Council members the Augusta Public Schools and the state of Maine have been ahead of the country in terms of having students in a hybrid model. Receiving money from the first round of coronavirus relief funds allowed Augusta to follow the guidelines in full.

But guidelines for Maine schools have remained the same since the start of the school year, and Anastasio said nothing would change with the scheduling unless spacing restrictions were lifted.

Gilbert Elementary School Principal Sarah Landry and Cony Middle and High School Principal Kim Silsby both outlined four options for Augusta’s schools to return. Anastasio said brining more students back, regardless of the option, would require adjusting logistics such as busing and putting more child care in place.

Silsby noted the issue with having all students back full time would be the space available to maintain proper distancing. She said custodial staff moved furniture around to make sure each scenario was tested out in person, but there were still at least 15 classrooms where spacing did not work.

After hearing the options, the school board agreed it made sense to keep the learning model in its hybrid format. Members wanted to survey parents, too, but Landry noted that with past surveys it has taken up to a month to gather the results.

Board member Kati McCormick noted her worry about student’s mental health, and asked if there would be any way to get students who are struggling back in school for more in-person days, if needed.

“When I heard the goal would be to get more vulnerable students back in as soon as possible, that’s where my mind went,” she said, “to the kids struggling, not necessarily academically.”

School officials said it would be difficult to get a fully remote student into one of the cohorts, due to class size. They said it also would be difficult to bring a student in for more than two or three times a week, since one cohort is receiving the lesson the other had the previous day.

Anastasio said the district will use its findings to move forward to planning students return in the fall. But, he emphasized a fully in-person return for all students depends on whether or not the CDC and DOE guidelines change, and on the coronavirus vaccine’s effectiveness and spread.

“I don’t know about fall to be honest with you,” he said. “We are trying to see the end, now that we bypassed one obstacle, it would be natural to continue the discussion about September, but we still don’t have guidance on what it will look like. I don’t think we can wait.”

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