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Students are still learning at a Midcoast school, even as more are going home with COVID this year

Nobleboro Central School Teacher Laurie Stiles works with a student in her classroom.
Robbie Feinberg
Maine Public
Nobleboro Central School Teacher Laurie Stiles works with a student in her classroom.

Over the past week, several schools across Maine announced plans to temporarily move to remote learning as cases of COVID-19 surge.

The interruptions have been a pattern for schools that have already seen more cases this fall than they saw throughout all of last year. The challenges are apparent in one Midcoast school, but students and educators are hoping continued precautions can keep them in the classroom.

Near the playground at Nobleboro Central School, a small group of third-graders screams as they chop up pumpkins and yank seeds out of squash for an agriculture and nutrition class.

"So use that spoon to scrape all — get all the flesh out of that. Is there any more you can scrape off?" the teacher tells them, as a few look away in disgust.

Despite all the goop, kids say they love the chopping and cooking. None of it was possible last year, when the pandemic forced the class online.

The virus altered other courses, too. Big, plexiglass dividers were installed in some classrooms. And kids used pool noodles while they played tag in physical education class to ensure they stayed apart. Many of those precautions have been somewhat relaxed this year, with classes and sports resembling something closer to normal.

"There's a lot less restrictions this year, which has been great," says Physical Education Teacher Michelle York. "But I think the challenge here is that more kids are coming down with COVID. So this year, making sure we keep our kids safe has been important."

Nobleboro Central School Nurse Kayla O'Donnell working in her office
Robbie Feinberg
Maine Public
Nobleboro Central School Nurse Kayla O'Donnell working in her office

School staff point out that last year, the school didn't have its first COVID-19 case until March, which allowed kids to mostly stay in the classroom. But with the additional cases this fall, third-grade teacher Paula Schuster said more students are quarantining at home for days or weeks.

She said that adds responsibilities: teaching kids in her classroom, plus connecting with the students still at home, and providing them with materials and activities. It's a tough balance that she says has made this year even more challenging than the last.

"Because you're trying to do both sides, and there's only so much time in a day," Schuster said. "So in all honesty, there are days I don't feel like I do it well. But I think we're just giving it our best shot. And I think with the kids, they've been wonderful."

Seventh-grader Harris Abbott said even with those efforts, the interruptions can also drain students who quickly fall behind when they miss class.

"And that's a lot of work for the students and the teachers. Because they have to give it to you and make sure it's the right work and help you with it because you might have not been here for a new lesson or something. So that's definitely hard for both teachers and students," Abbott said.

Around the classrooms and hallways, a lot of precautions still remain. Masks are work. Marks on the floor signal where students should sit during reading time. And before students go out for their snack break or come back inside, they make sure to wash their hands and sanitize.

But even amid all the cleaning, distancing and quarantining, educators and students said they're mostly happy to be in the classroom after two years of constant change.

"The truth is, school feels very much like school," said Principal Ira Michaud.

Michaud said he's been surprised at just how quickly students have adapted, and students are showing steady academic progress, despite the disruption.

"So we'd like to have more of the traditional things, like we used to have, for gatherings. But we're not quite at that point," he said. "The one huge benefit is that we seem to have students in school a lot of the time, which is great. And it's been wonderful seeing them in person and learning and working hard."

Many students said they're happy, too. They spend a lot more time outside than before the pandemic: eating lunch at picnic tables, playing soccer and traversing a few nearby walking trails.

Plus, middle school teacher Laurie Stiles said her students now get an extra "mini-recess," for five to 10 minutes, a few times each day, when she has to wipe down their desks when they change classrooms.

"I was a little bit concerned about it in the beginning, because of the missing time. We went from sometimes a 55 minutes or 60-minute class, to, depending on the break and where it falls, one class might be 40 minutes and the other might be 55 or 60," she said.

"I think the kids are producing more work. They're learning more, and I have to attribute it to going outside a lot."

Her theory is that the short breaks help make the kids more ready to learn.

"Or maybe it's because they went a year-and-a-half without learning a lot," Stiles said. "Because it was all on a screen. And so maybe they're just excited to learn now. I'm not really sure what it is, but I like it."

Masks have become a flashpoint issue at school board meetings across the country. But seventh-graders Jojo Shea and Abby Harrington said that's not the case at Nobleboro — especially if universal masking means they can stay in school, instead of learning remotely.

"It was just really hard to get everything you needed and do all the classes and sign into all the Zooms at, like, nine o'clock in the morning," Shea said.

"And it's just a lot better to be in person," Harrington added. "And easier."

So even as the virus has forced many Maine districts to move to remote learning temporarily, educators and students are hoping their school will remain open for as long as possible.