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As Graduation Nears, Maine Ends An Unprecedented School Year Altered By Pandemic

School buildings in Maine are closed through at the least the end of the academic year, classes have moved online and families are trying to teach their kids at home — with mixed results. What happens over the summer and even into next fall is also still in question.

Jennifer Mitchell spoke with Maine Public education reporter Robbie Feinberg about how COVID-19 is affecting K-12 education in Maine.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Feinberg: COVID-19 really exposed a lot of the inequities and gaps that we kind of have already had. So for schools, I think the most obvious gap has been internet access. The Maine Department of Education has said that tens of thousands of students don’t have internet access in the state. And that has meant really huge differences in what learning actually looks like. So some students are still able to participate in things like video calls, they can still see their friends, they can have kind of more of those interactive experiences online. But then there are other kids who are still stuck using just kind of, you know, paper packets. So you can imagine those are two pretty big, different experiences. And so this has been such a big concern that the Bangor school department just raised $60,000 to buy Wi-Fi devices to help their kids, and the state DOE he has told me that it’s trying to move around funding in its budget to help other schools purchase more of these devices.

Mitchell: Where does this put us with testing and test scores, preparedness and development throughout the school year because it sounds like it’s been very disruptive. So how do they actually go about gauging those markers that they normally use?

Feinberg: Right now the state has basically canceled all standardized tests, and that’s kind of happening really around the country. So that has just kind of ended, and so we don’t really know, and I’m guessing that what’s gonna wind up happening in the fall is people are gonna wind up gauging test scores and development, but it’s still really unknown. I think schools are still figuring all of that out at this point. And development is likely going to be way back. You look at when students are off during the summer, the impact that has on test scores — that’s likely to be exacerbated. And so we’re gonna see what that means when we get to fall or whenever school does wind up opening again.

Mitchell: Also, right about now is when I remember as a junior taking Advanced Placement exams and the SAT and so on. Are those still going on online? Or how does is that even happening, or is it?

Feinberg: SATs have been actually suspended in some ways, but AP exams are still happening online. I talked with one senior who told me she’s trying to prepare for some of her AP exams, but it’s nearly impossible for her. She does have a teacher who’s working with her. They’re trying all this kind of stuff. But it’s not the same as having those classes and study groups. So I think she has an exam coming up over the next few weeks, and she just doesn’t feel ready for it at all. And she’s actually worried about what that’s going to be like for her when she gets to college, where she’s had this significant period off, what is it going to be like when she suddenly has to resume and catch up to those college classes. She doesn’t really know at this point.

Mitchell: That brings us to the topic of graduation, which is kind of a big event in a lot of people’s lives. Whether it’s high school graduation or college graduation. And of course we’ve had these bans on large gathering and events. How is that gonna come together? Are people just gonna have to sit out the ceremony?

Feinberg: Yeah, I actually sat in on an end-of-year planning session for all of this at a local high school, I got to sit down on it earlier this week. And they actually took a survey of all of their students, and it didn’t really provide much clarity on this, frankly, at this high school. There were a lot of students who basically said they wanted that big in-person graduation, which, you know, completely understandable. They wanted the cap and gown, they wanted all their families there and stuff like that at this point. But that just simply isn’t going to be possible with a lot of this. So there are some alternatives that are being proposed. I’ve heard about virtual graduations. I haven’t heard many students who are particularly that into that right now, but it is being considered and some colleges are planning on doing that. But then I’ve heard some kind of more out-of-the-box ideas. So I’ve heard some schools talking about renting out a drive-in movie theater and actually using that. Families driving up, having some kind of presentation that way. And then I’ve also heard of like drive-thru graduations, which have been proposed, where kids just drive up to the entrance of the school building and receive their diploma and leave. But obviously, all that is not going to be the same as what did the normal graduation is at all. So that’s not going to satisfy every student. So schools are really still figuring out what’s going to be best.

This interview is part of Maine Public’s Deep Dive: Coronavirus. For more, visit mainepublic.org/coronavirus.