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Whether — And How — Maine Schools Will Reopen Remains Uncertain

Matt York
AP File
One of the most difficult decisions facing Maine officials is whether to reopen schools this fall.

One of the most difficult decisions facing local and state officials in Maine is whether — and how — to reopen schools this fall. The state Department of Education has released its initial guidelines for reopening, with districts around the state likely to release their local plans over the next month.

Reopening is also a complicated issue for teachers and families, as some feel anxious about returning in the fall.

Remote learning at Ashley Muncey's house in Hollis has been hectic, to say the least. She has three young kids, including a 1-year-old daughter. When school closed in March, her husband worked from their basement, and she juggled multiple Zoom meetings for their kids each day and took care of the baby as the pandemic unfolded around them.

“It was hard. My kids didn't much care for remote learning. They missed being in school. And they missed the schedule of it all. It did get better, we started to have a flow, but they are definitely looking forward to returning to the school in the fall.”

Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public
Maine Public
Muncey has three young kids.

Another Hollis parent, Merydeth Charlton, is also eager for her son to go back. He has struggled socially, she says. Charlton says she feels like he has taken "five steps back" during the pandemic. But, while Charlton trusts local school officials to keep kids safe, she has questions: who will provide child care for students if they can only go to school a few days per week? And how will she be able to protect herself from the virus, particularly as a nurse who is immunosuppressed after a kidney transplant.

"I worry, as a nurse at the bedside, if I get it, what happens?” says Charlton. “What happens to my family and my patients? It's scary. I work in the NICU, the neonatal intensive care unit, with sick, vulnerable babies. And, certainly, we don't want them to get infected.”

Health, safety, childcare — they are just a few of the many complicated factors that parents, teachers and schools are thinking about as they weigh reopening.

“The unknown right now is very scary for parents, and that's what we're facing right now, is an unknown,” says Carrie Woodcock, executive director of the Maine Parent Federation.

Woodcock says while some parents want their children to head back to school, others, particularly those with immunocompromised children, are nervous, with some saying they will not send their children back into the classroom until a COVID-19 vaccine is available.

“The overwhelming amount of parents want to know that their children are going to be safe. I would say that's the one consistency,” Woodcock says. “For some parents, safety means that health is the priority concern. And for other parents, safety means that their academics take priority, and their social-emotional learning take priority. And I can see all three sides.”

For North Yarmouth parent Sarah McIntyre, the negative effects of staying home outweigh the risk of the virus for her family. McIntyre has had to cut back her work schedule to one day a week so she can care for her teenage daughter, who has Down syndrome and autism. Without the basic routines and in-person therapies at school, McIntyre says her daughter has had both medical problems and behavioral issues.

“I really do hope they open the schools, because I don't know what we're going to do,” she says.

But other parents say a lot of questions still need to be answered before they are comfortable with reopening. Amanda Cooper is a parent from Buxton who also teaches middle school in a neighboring district. She says she "desperately" wants to see her students, particularly after seeing how remote learning did not work for many kids. But she is also acutely aware of the risks.

“We have to do so safely. We absolutely have to do everything within our power to mitigate any potential risks to exposures,” says Cooper. “Because this pandemic is not something, this virus is not something that we really have a solid grasp on yet. And I don't think public schools should be the test subjects to see how that goes, quite frankly.”

Maine Education Association President Grace Leavitt says ensuring that safety will require more resources. More Personal Protective Equipment, new school configurations, and more staff to transport students, clean school buildings and deliver meals.

“Really, the list is pretty lengthy, how to make the facilities safe, and how to make the way we do instruction safe for in-person learning,” Leavitt says. “And that's the goal that everybody wants to get back to, is in-person, because we know that is absolutely the best for our students. But we need to keep everybody safe. And that has to be taken care of.”

The Maine Department of Education estimates the costs of implementing Center for Disease Control guidelines statewide could be more than $320 million. Commissioner Pender Makin told Maine Public last month that the Department has put in a request to cover the cost through the more than $1 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds that the state has received so far.

Steve Bailey, the executive director of the Maine School Management Association, says leaders are doing everything possible to open schools, but local communities will not be able to handle the cost of reopening on their own.

“Federal and state dollars will be needed to make sure that this can happen,” Bailey says. “Without it, communities are just going to be left on their own and fall by the wayside. We have to make sure we don't accentuate the haves and the have-nots, in terms of those who are able and those who aren't. We need to make sure it can happen across the state.”

In an email, Maine Department of Education spokesperson Kelli Deveaux says the agency has been gathering input from several stakeholder groups as it has developed its reopening framework, and has also received more than 40,000 survey responses since last week from families and educators about the document.

"We anticipate fiscal impacts for schools could be long lasting as both school, state and local budgets suffer during this pandemic," Deveaux said. "Schools are working to creatively expand their abilities to meet the guidelines for a safe return to classroom instruction, but this will require additional staff, space and supplies. We would assert that the federal funds should be targeted to support schools at this time, and certainly not withheld as has been suggested."

State officials have said they are hoping that schools can reopen in the fall, but are advising districts to plan for many different scenarios, whether that is in-person learning, remote learning, or something in between.

For disclosure, the Maine Education Association represents most of Maine Public's news staff.

Updated with DOE statement at 2:09 p.m. July 15, 2020.

Originally published 5:01 p.m. July 14, 2020.