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Maine Education Department Releases Initial Guidelines For Reopening Schools In Fall

Emilio Morenatti
Associated Press
Student Wendy Otin, 6, sits at her classroom during the first day of school after the lockdown, at a primary school in Barcelona, Spain, Monday, June 8, 2020.

The Maine Department of Education has released its initial framework to help school districts as they look toward resuming in-classroom instruction in the fall.

Schools say they’re already working on several plans to implement social distancing and other procedures to ensure students stay safe.

Maine Public reporter Robbie Feinberg spoke with All Things Considered host Nora Flaherty about the new protocols, which will likely be expensive.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Flaherty: Do these guidelines give us any sense as to whether schools actually can reopen in the fall?

Feinberg: Unfortunately, that is still uncertain. But this framework goes into detail and provides recommendations to schools about what’s going to be needed in order for them to stay open. The guidelines say that the DOE will be working with other state agencies to look at factors such as COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, the capacity in local hospitals, and how prepared local schools are. In an interview, Commissioner Pender Makin said the decision whether to reopen will likely be made on a local basis — county by county or district by district.

‘It could be even school by school, in some cases. And in a dream world, where everything progresses in a way where we heal from this experience, we could say the whole state, we’re good to go. That’d be ideal. That’s what we’re aiming for. But our goal is to get kids back into the classroom, as soon as it is safe and advisable to do so. Because it is the safest place, in general, for children to be,’ Makin said.

Makin did add that if conditions stay as they have in some parts of the state, where there’s little evidence of the virus, schools there would likely be able to start opening if they have plans in place. But the commissioner was quick to note that the current framework is still tentative and could change over the next few months.

And when schools reopen, how different might they look?

That’ll likely vary from school to school, but it’ll look pretty different on the whole. The state is recommending schools have hand washing stations, signs in the hallways promoting one-way traffic, Plexiglas shields in certain areas. And the federal CDC is recommending that, when possible, desks should be 6 feet apart. Kids should be spread out on buses, too. And the CDC recommends all teachers should wear masks, and students should be encouraged to wear them as well. Even school lunch probably won’t take place in a cafeteria, but will be brought to kids in their classroom instead.

And how do schools feel about moving in this direction?

A lot of school districts have told me they’ve been preparing and looking at these kinds of protocols already. And they still have a lot of questions to sort out. Tim Doak, the superintendent of RSU 39 in Caribou, says he’s looking at something like a phased-in transition, where preschoolers through third graders would come back to school first, with the rest still at home. He says in order to ensure social distancing in classrooms, students would be far more spread out across the building, with only maybe 10 or so in a classroom at a time. And, per recommendations, there wouldn’t be rugs, toys, anything that can’t be easily cleaned every day.

Doak says while the new protocols are necessary to protect health, he says it’s also going to be hard for a child who’s just four or five to understand and adjust to this new version of school.

‘It’s their first experience with public schools. A lot of them are crying. They don’t want to go in their first week of school. Mom is there helping. The teacher’s helping. That’s probably not going to be able to happen. Most of them wipe their noses on each other. They don’t know any better. That’s a hard grade level to start out in a remote learning setting, let alone a hybrid setting with five kids per classroom, only five can go out to recess at a time. That’s not what pre-K is designed to even be like,’ Doak says.

Despite those questions, Bangor Superintendent Betsy Webb says she was pleased to see that the state’s plan offers some flexibility for school districts, including around class sizes. She says the plan will allow the district to get as many students back into school as possible, with proper social distancing, which parents have been clamoring for.

‘Many parents said remote learning didn’t work for them. It didn’t work for their family. It didn’t work for their work schedule,’ Webb says. ‘I think we did the best we could, and they were most appreciative to our teachers. But for students educationally, families’ routines and getting back to work, and also for the emotional and social well-being of children, they want them back in school. And I don’t blame them. As an educator, that’s the optimal situation, no question.’

And the other question, I imagine, is how much all of these changes will cost.

Yeah, if you think about the cost of all of this extra cleaning, the Plexiglas shields, the protective equipment, reconfiguring classrooms, plus extra staff to both clean and care for kids, it all adds up. The state education department estimates that it could cost $320 million statewide for every school to implement all of the CDC guidelines.

And yet, at the same time that all that money is needed, the effects of COVID-19 have cut into state revenues. And it has forced a lot of towns to trim from their school budgets or at least keep them flat this year. Some are worried that could mean cuts to teachers at a time when more staff are needed to help students who’ve fallen behind.

Makin says the education department is requesting $320 million from the more than $1 billion in coronavirus relief money that the state received so it can assist schools in their transition.

‘It would be a worthy investment to support schools, upfront, to get kids back to school safely. So we can continue reopening our economy in the fall,’ Makin says.

Schools have also spent the last three months trying to move toward ‘remote learning’ online. Is that going to go away?

No, not at all. Schools say they’re preparing for scenarios where either they can’t open come September, or they open, then cases begin to rise and they close again. Or some students go to school, while others stay at home. So remote learning will continue to play a big role there. And the state has put forward recommendations for what learning from home should look like across the state.

But some are worried about what happens if some students can’t go to class. Carrie Woodcock, the executive director of the Maine Parent Federation, says she has heard from many parents of students with disabilities who have seen their children regress without in-person classes and services. She worries those disparities could continue into the fall if they can’t get in-person instruction.

‘There are a lot of concerns around, if a virtual or hybrid model continues in the fall, how do we get kids with the highest needs the in-person instruction they need so that we are not regressing anymore? And we are moving them forward. And we are meeting their goals on their IEPs [individualized education programs],’ Woodcock says.

Woodcock says she’d like to see parents and students have a larger voice as the state’s framework continues to develop, to make sure that those concerns are heard.

Originally posted 4:37 p.m. June 12, 2020.