FARMINGTON — Mt. Blue Middle School students and staff turned to remote learning Tuesday, Jan. 18, through Friday, Jan. 21, due to a shortage of staff.

Regional School Unit 9 (RSU 9) was “forced” to make the change from in-person learning due to a “large” staff shortage and “a lack of substitutes,” Superintendent Chris Elkington said in an announcement sent across the district.

Elkington shared in an email that as of Monday afternoon, Jan. 17, eight teachers and one administrator at the middle school had called out sick. The district would only be able to acquire substitute teachers for half of the staff. Additionally, Elkington said that the district “ordinarily” anticipates “at least one or two staff call[ing] out first thing in the morning.”

“So we thought our numbers were only going to get worse,” Elkington said.

The teachers that failed their health screener said their symptoms were “mild” enough to “teach remotely if [the district] needed them,” Elkington added.

RSU 9 — and Franklin County — is facing one of the toughest battles in the COVID-19 pandemic thus far.


In the week ending Friday, Jan. 14, the district shared on its COVID-19 information page that 17 individuals at the middle school had reported testing positive for the virus. That figure is part of the total 98 individuals that tested positive across the district that week, the highest figure for RSU 9 in the pandemic to date.

Franklin County has returned to its all-time peak of 44 average cases per day, according to the New York Times. With the rapid spread of the COVID omicron variant — and evidence that cases are being undercounted — it’s likely that number will continue to climb. This marks Franklin County with the third highest case rate in the state at 1,401.5 cases per 10,000 people, according to Maine CDC data.

In an update sent to district families Friday, Jan. 14, Elkington wrote that any other steps amid health concerns will, in part, hinge on whether the district has “enough staff to run the school or program successfully.”

“We are closely monitoring staff absences (teachers, ed techs, bus drivers, food service workers etc.) as the impact on a given grade level, program, or school, could force some into remote learning for short periods of time,” Elkington wrote.

He specifically highlighted a bus driver shortage as a contributing factor to going remote. Bus driver shortages have been impacting RSU 9and districts across Maine — since the beginning of the 2021-22 school year.

Director of Curriculum Laura Columbia spoke with the Franklin Journal in a phone interview ahead of the announcement Friday, Jan. 14. She said that if remote learning were necessary, the district would hope to isolate the transition among “only those that are affected” such as a specific group or community, rather than an entire school. Staffing shortages appeared to pose challenges to that plan.


At multiple board meetings, Elkington has expressed concerns about the district nearing “capacity” and what happens if they reach the point beyond.

Columbia clarified in the interview that the district’s capacity is directly linked to staff shortages. She said a certain number of absent staff members in various schools, departments could require a school or community to switch to the remote-learning model. For example, Columbia referenced food services, a necessary department to keep any school running.

Ultimately, the district is motivated to maintain in-person learning for all of the schools if it’s at all possible — a sentiment Mt. Blue Education Association President Doug Hodum echoed. This is one of the reasons why the district hoped to only switch isolated communities to the remote-learning model, rather than an entire school.

“Our goal is to keep kids in school, safely, as much as we can,” Columbia said. “We know we’re a safe place for students, we offer food, and we offer education … social-emotional needs … those are things that kids need, and they need to be around their friends, [given] a community feeling.”

Hodum agreed that school was, in many aspects, the safest place for kids to be.

Columbia pointed out that offering remote learning for specific communities “may not feel fair in the moment — these kids can go in and these kids can’t.”


However, Columbia did say administrators were preparing for COVID-19 — amid an aggressive surge of the highly contagious omicron variant — “to work its way around each school.”

Both Columbia and Hodum believe that school is one of the safer places to be. And perhaps that is true: schools are the one place all students are sure to wear masks around others as opposed to in the community where the spread is moving rapidly and masking is not regulated.

“So a lot of the cases we’re having are outside of school. It’s been very hard,” Columbia said.

She said administrators and other staff overseeing COVID-19 procedures have tracked many cases among students to gatherings outside of school. This, she said, decreases the certainty that students are transmitting and contracting the virus while on school property.

“This past week [ending on Jan. 14], we did not see [reported COVID cases in the district] that we could confidently say was in-school transmission,” Columbia said.

While the goal is to prevent entire schools from going remote, it appears that staff shortages — an ongoing battle for RSU 9 — pose an impassable challenge.


Elkington wrote in the email that he hopes the school will return to an in-person learning model on Monday, Jan. 24, but the district needs “to see how our present staff are doing and if anyone else gets infected Friday or Saturday.”

“We will let parents know as soon as we can this weekend, hopefully Saturday, if we will be continuing with remote for some days next week or returning to in-person instruction,” he said.

Elkington said the district’s tech department is working to provide hot spots to students and families without reliable internet access. These students have been identified through back-to-school paperwork, he wrote.

Broadband access poses a separate set of challenges for students at RSU 9.

In Franklin County, many residents don’t have “access to broadband that meets Maine and the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) minimum speeds of 25mbps/3mbps (megabits per second),” according to Charlie Woodworth of the Greater Franklin Development Council.

Hodum echoed this concern while expressing his desire for in-person learning to remain in place if it’s possible to maintain safety measures and successfully keep the school running.


He posed that hotspots are not a complete solution in areas without reliable cell phone access on top of broadband.

“We have areas in our district that simply cannot get online. Give them a hotspot, and it doesn’t work because there’s no cell service,” Hodum said. “That is something that not just the teachers, but the administration, both at the building and district levels … know.”

Additionally, Hodum and other teachers have seen kids in every grade “disengage” from school when there is a transition to the remote learning model.

“We witnessed it last year when we were hybrid and some kids were fully remote,” Hodum said. “They didn’t come or when they had remote days they were disengaged and not participating.”

Another addition to the challenges are providing food services to children that rely on meals at school. The district offered box lunches with a breakfast for the next morning. However, some expressed concerns on the district’s community Facebook page that not all families are able to travel to Mt. Blue Middle School to pick the meals up every day.

Columbia acknowledged that “certain kids who don’t have as many resources as others, they’re already put at a higher disadvantage [in remote-learning mode].”

It’s been a difficult year for RSU 9. Each solution to a set of challenges (though perhaps necessary for safety precautions) appears to surface yet another set.

Amid the rapid spread of the omicron variant, it’s not clear if challenges for RSU 9 will diminish anytime soon.

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