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The State Says Maine Schools Can Consider Reopening. That Doesn't Mean All Of Them Will.

Jennifer Sinco Kelleher
AP Images
Hand sanitizer is attached to a desk in a classroom at Aikahi Elementary School in Kailua, Hawaii, Tuesday, July 28, 2020.

The state is advising that schools across Maine can consider reopening their classrooms this fall if they follow certain guidelines. The state unveiled its new advisory system for schools, and it has classified all 16 counties as "green," suggesting there is relatively low risk of COVID-19 spread. But those classifications don't mean that all schools will reopen, and many still face lots of challenges before they can bring kids back to class.

Maine Public’s Robbie Feinberg spoke with Nora Flaherty about the advisory system and more.

Flaherty: So, first, can you talk us through Friday’s announcement from the state?

Feinberg: Sure. So under this new system for determining whether it's safe for schools to reopen, the state is using several pieces of public health data, like COVID-19 cases or positivity rates, and is using those to label each county as green, yellow or red. Green means low-risk and that in-person classes can be considered. Red means there is a high risk of COVID-19, so to stay with remote learning. And yellow means an "elevated" risk — so schools could implement a hybrid model of the two instead.

Friday the big announcement was that every county in the state was designated as "green," so the state is saying that districts can at least consider fully reopening schools this fall, though they need to follow many state requirements in order to do so.

Were schools expecting every county to be designated green? It seems a bit surprising.

Credit Charlie Neibergall / AP Images
AP Images
A mechanic in Iowa makes his way to clean the interior of a school bus.

Some school leaders were surprised, too, particularly because we are still seeing dozens of new cases every day, especially in southern Maine. But officials from the Maine Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Department of Health and Human Services explained that when looking at public health data, everywhere in Maine, even counties like Cumberland and York, are generally looking better than the picture of the virus we're seeing nationally.

And Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah explained that a green designation doesn't mean that a school needs to necessarily rush into reopening:

“The green here is not like the green light at a drag strip. It does not mean you push your feet on the accelerator and go as fast as possible. The green light here is really more like the green light at a car wash, right? You enter slowly, you look around you, with caution, and you are prepared to stop at any time. That's really the way in which these designations are offered. They're cautionary, so that school administrators have all the information from an epidemiological perspective as they're making their decisions on the ground.”

With all counties getting that green light, do we think all schools are actually going to reopen fully?

Not quite. So first, it's important to note that schools will need to meet several new requirements by the state if they want to reopen. Masks are required for staff and students over two. Symptom checks are required. There's also social distancing of at least 3 feet for kids and 6 feet for adults. Then there are other recommendations, too: limiting space on buses, changing how food is served so students aren't all gathered together, plus new protocols for disinfecting areas and even directing traffic in hallways.

And that's all, clearly, a lot for schools to adapt to, and it brings up a lot of questions: do schools have enough buses and bus drivers to transport kids? The state's teaching force is also relatively older and more at-risk, so will we even have enough teachers and substitutes who can come into classrooms?

As one example, Elaine Boulier, the superintendent of MSAD 42 in Mars Hill, told me yesterday that the two schools in her district didn't have the space to spread out 20 students per classroom when they need to be at least three feet apart:

“That's still a lot of space, when you're talking about 20 kids in a classroom. And we don't have, in either building, we don't have a lot of extra space either. We can't take half of a large class and put them in the gym. We have a finite number of teachers as well.”

So Boulier says because of the lack of space, her district is planning to start slow, with a hybrid plan where half the students will go in the morning, and the other half will go in the afternoon.

And school superintendents in both Yarmouth and South Portland told me they want to begin the year using hybrid models, both for safety reasons and to ensure that staff and students can adjust to all of the new procedures such as social distancing.

I imagine that in some districts, there are a lot of parents who are still concerned about sending their children back to school, especially with more new cases every day.

This is a big concern. I'll give you one example: I saw recent survey results from Biddeford Schools where more than 15 percent of parents said they didn't feel comfortable having their children return in the fall.

That's part of the reason why some districts are looking at giving parents a bit more choice. Bangor Superintendent Betsy Webb says that her district is planning to go to in-person, five day a week instruction for any family who wants that, which is about 60 percent. But she says about 13 percent of families want to continue learning remotely, which they'll be allowed to do:

“We know that the vast majority of our students will be in-person, but we also will run simultaneously with other options because we know families have different needs. Whether that's medical conditions or comfort, we wanted to make sure we could be as accommodating as possible.”

And now that this guidance is out there from the state, what's next?

The biggest steps going forward will likely be on the local level. Many districts have already released their own reopening plans, and with this guidance, many others will likely be releasing theirs going forward. And these look very different from district to district. Some want to bring everyone back come fall. Others may just bring back younger students, with older students maybe continuing with remote learning. It really varies district by district, and these plans will likely change even further as parents and teachers weigh in on them.

But what's important to remember is that the virus can change, too. We've obviously seen spikes in other states and even outbreaks here. State officials touched on this Friday, and they say it's why all of these county classifications will be reconsidered every two weeks, so that if it does become unsafe for students to go to school, these advisories will change.

Originally published 4:38 p.m. July 31, 2020.