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Mills Administration Unveils Plan For Helping Schools Struggling With Reopening Decisions

Bill Sikes
AP Images
Back-to-school supplies await shoppers at a store on Saturday, July 11, 2020, in Marlborough, Mass.

This year's back to school preparations will be like no other year.

With classes resuming in just a month and a half, state officials revealed Friday some details of how they envision schools will go forward with in-classroom instruction.

Credit Robert F. Bukaty / AP File
AP File
Maine Gov. Janet Mills speaks at a news conference Tuesday, April 28, 2020, in Augusta, Maine.

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills made a point of stressing that Maine, and not President Donald Trump, will decide if or when schools will open: “decisions about how best to return our kids to classroom schooling will be made in Maine, not in Washington, D.C.” 

A number of questions remain.

According to the state's reopening plan, each of Maine's 16 counties will be monitored for COVID-19 trends and assigned a traffic-style alert color to help schools determine when — or if — they should be open.

"A designation of red indicates that the county has high risk of COVID-19 spread, and that in-classroom learning in schools should not be conducted."

Schools in counties with a yellow designation are advised to adopt a "hybrid" style of education, such as some in-person classes and some remote-distance classes to reduce the amount of people together at one time.

Schools in a green county may resume in-person instruction.

Maine Center for Disease Control Director Dr. Nirav Shah says, in all cases, classrooms open fulltime or part time will be required to follow guidelines set forth by his department: "these include, among other things, symptom screening before coming to the school building, physical distancing within the facility itself. Ensuring that children are provided with and wearing face coverings."

Other items on the checklist include hand hygiene enforcement, and the understanding that any child who is unwell must remain home. Maine Department of Education Commissioner Pender Makin says these measures — including mask-wearing for small children age two and over — have been done successfully elsewhere, but she says parents can help.

"Consider please modeling and supporting your children this summer as they're out in the community, in practicing wearing those masks, so that the first exposure to that isn't something that's being enforced in a classroom, but rather something that's part of our collective social interaction together as a community and a state who are, together, surviving a pandemic."

Less clear is whether all the school systems and the local boards that run them will be adequately prepared or willing to comply with all of the mandates. Over the course of the pandemic, while many have followed guidelines ordered by the state, some businesses and even whole municipalities have been seen to flout the rules.

"We're not sending the police after any school teachers or superintendent who don't require 6-feet, 3-feet on a particular day, in a particular classroom,” says Mills. “That's not what this is about."

Mills says she believes there is consensus among school systems and they will comply.

"We fully expect compliance because everyone shares the same concern here. We want to make schools available again. We don't want our kids to drop off the cliff and lose their achievements and increase any achievement gaps that may already exist.”

But even if districts are all willing, funding is likely to be an issue.

Mills says she is assigning $165 million in federal CARES Act funds to help get schools started with the reopening process, but the figure falls well short of the $320 million that education officials say they need.

And other questions remain, such as how some parents will cope with the uncertainty of a school that may be in session one week, partially in session another week, and out of session altogether the following week.

Teachers have also expressed concerns about whether enough personal protective equipment will be available and whether small classrooms can be made safe.

Mills says she is hopeful that lawmakers in Washington will soon make more funds available to further aid schools in making the necessary alterations through at least four subsequent pandemic relief bills currently under consideration.

"I recognize that more assistance will be needed by schools, and I consider this funding to be an initial start-up measure, and I am hopeful that Congress will support additional funding to support the safe operations of schools."

In the meantime, schools will be notified sometime next week of what their share of the initial round of reopening money will be.

Barbara Cariddi and Mal Leary contributed to this report.

Updated 5:31 p.m. July 17, 2020.