AUGUSTA — As the first full week of school showed its challenges with COVID-19 cases, the Augusta school board and administrators discussed the possibility of remote learning, and said the district would be able to make the switch — if needed.

Augusta Superintendent James Anastasio said the switch to remote learning would not be ideal and is not currently being discussed as an option. But he noted, as of Wednesday night’s board meeting, there were 19 positive COVID-19 cases among students and staff and 71 close contacts of varying quarantining degrees. He said 2,200 students are enrolled in the district this year.

Each building within the Augusta Public School Department has had a positive COVID-19 case, Assistant Superintendent Katy Grondin said and reiterated the need for students to stay home if they are not feeling well.

The district mandated universal masking and is participating in pool testing, the latter of which is slated to start in the coming week. Though students and staff are able to cut quarantine time because of those measures — and if they are vaccinated — board members said there is still concern from some parents about in-person learning.

“Two components have to be in place,” Anastasio said of using remote learning. “Technology, which they will have next week, and second, teachers. Are our teachers ready to provide the resources and assignments students need? The answer is that other than new teachers, they did it last year, I think they can.”

He said much of the remote learning that took place last year was due to staff members who had come in close contact with positive COVID-19 cases. Because of the 10-day quarantine time, staffing, which was already limited, was impacted even more and caused lessons to be pushed online.

Anastasio said he anticipates that teachers being vaccinated will reduce, “the likelihood we will have to close because we can’t staff.” He said it is important to remember that last year there were teachers specifically assigned to remote learning. Now, Anastasio said, those teachers have their own classrooms of around 20 students.

Students and staff members will have their vaccination rates measured by the Department of Health and Human Services. Student vaccine rates are added to a dashboard separated by school districts, and teachers and staff will be required to anonymously report their status by the 10th of each month, if it is different from what they first reported. The data will be available in a dashboard like the student numbers, but will be separated by school building within the district.

Currently, eligible Augusta students have a vaccination rate of 75% to 100%. Students younger than 12 are not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

Anastasio said students who are quarantined will “be able to keep up and return anything they missed, quickly.” He said they will be able to access their assignments on Chromebooks through the Google Classroom and SeeSaw platforms.

Augusta school board member Kimberly Martin asked about how students with underlying medical conditions can have their learning needs met if they can’t be in school.

“We looked to what we did pre-pandemic and if there were medical reasons why being in school wasn’t the best option, those cases were brought to principals and vetted with whoever — guidance, social worker, etc.,” Anastasio said. “If that process is in the best interest of the student — and I emphasize, the student — then we will find a way to meet the needs.”

Farrington and Lincoln elementary schools will start pool testing next week, with the other Augusta schools following the week after.

Grondin said the company running the pool testing through the state Department of Education has given the district two nurses to help with the paperwork and sending the tests out — Cony Middle and High School alone has 140 permission slips to process before testing starts.

Farrington Elementary School Principal Teresa Beaudoin said she is “fortunate” the administration is following protocols. She said one of the school’s nurses went to a training course this week to learn more about coronavirus and pool testing.

“I feel fortunate through what we are facing,” Beaudoin said. “We have a great knowledge bank. … As we face anything with COVID-19, we are well equipped.”

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