SKOWHEGAN — Several projects are underway in Maine School Administrative District 54 after voters this summer approved a multi-million dollar referendum with COVID-relief money earmarked for renovations to schools and other infrastructure needs.

The federal pandemic relief funds, not to exceed $6,970,000, will be spent on building additions to Skowhegan Area Middle School, to replace and make improvements to HVAC, wiring and windows, and to expand broadband coverage. The district serves the towns of Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock, Smithfield and Skowhegan.

Superintendent Jon Moody said Monday that the projects at the middle school are in efforts to increase social distancing and space at the school; included is an expansion of the cafeteria and the expansion of a classroom wing on the side of the building facing Route 2. This addition “would add two classrooms and a resource room downstairs and three classrooms upstairs,” Moody said.

He anticipates the district going to bid, hiring an architect, and breaking ground to happen this spring and will run through next December.

“Although the project aims to have additional classes ready for the start of the 2023-24 school year, we are hopeful to have the cafeteria ready early into the school year,” Moody said.

The additional classroom wings will allow for the sixth graders that are now housed at Canaan Elementary and Mill Stream Elementary School to move over to the middle school; this move would not happen in the middle of the school year, Moody added, to avoid any student or staff disruptions. Instead, Moody anticipates students from those schools moving over at the beginning of the following school year.

Moving these grades over will also allow the district to expand pre-K programming at the elementary schools.

At Canaan Elementary and Bloomfield Elementary schools, air-quality projects are underway to improve ventilation by updated the building to three-phase power, upgrading the ventilation system and replacing windows “and other minor upgrades.”

Simultaneously at Canaan Elementary, the district is working to leverage funding through revolving renovation funds, which are not related to federal pandemic relief, to complete other safety renovations at the school including the installation of a sprinkler system and wiring upgrades.

Districtwide, officials are also working to upgrade wireless networks. Before the pandemic, the only grades that had a device available for each student were grades seven and eight. Though COVID-19 relief funding has allowed the district to provide devices to all students K-12 as well as significant classroom technology updates, officials quickly learned that the wireless network and infrastructure was not suited to handle “the increasing traffic necessitated by the pandemic.”

“This project would upgrade the network to handle the pandemic reality of one-to-one technology in our schools,” Moody said.

To date, MSAD 54 has received more than $16 million in coronavirus relief funding through three different grants: $1,116,703 in July 2020 from ESSER I (CARES ACT); $4,621,847 in December 2020 from ESSER II (CARES ACT 2); $10,383,195 in March 2021 from the American Rescue Plan Act.

“The district has worked to take a commonsense approach, leveraging federal funding in a way that prioritizes student and staff needs during the pandemic and then to gradually step down federal spending over the next three schools years,” Moody said. “This approach should position the district well post-pandemic, which we all hope comes sooner than later.”

He added that the district has also gone ahead with using some federal funds for the start of the year that were not included in the Aug. 31 bond. This includes the addition of a portable classroom at North Elementary in Skowhegan, which has allowed for the expansion of pre-K while having all students back in in-person learning.

This purchase and installation was complete prior to the start of the school year and allowed district officials to have more pre-K programming to more students at North Elementary and has also allowed them to adjust from half-day classes to full-day classes, adding an additional 16 students. The district provides free pre-K services to residents through a partnership with Kennebec Valley Community Action Program.

“A majority of federal funds have been used to fund staffing, COVID-19 supplies and materials and instructional supplies necessitated by the pandemic,” Moody said. “We’ve seen an increased need for multiple classroom supplies to limit the in-class handling of manipulatives/resources by students.”

This includes the need for additional textbooks to avoid sharing copies as well as purchasing digital subscriptions and programs and other tools for use by students and teachers outside of the classroom.

Staffing additions include a full-time technology staff member, full- and part-time nursing staff, daily duty/interventionists, substitutes, tutors and classroom teachers. A position has also been created in the district’s business office to help process federal fund reimbursements.

“Priority No. 1 has been on getting and keeping our kids in school safely,” Moody said. “The federal funding has been focused on that and on meeting the needs and learning gaps we have seen and will see as a result of the pandemic.”

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