In Aroostook County, Planning For New School Year Like 'Walking On A Very Thin Tightrope'

Sep 10, 2020

RSU 29 Superintendent Ellen Halliday.
Credit Courtesy RSU 29

As part of our continuing Deep Dive Coronavirus series, we're looking at how schools are preparing to re-open. To get a better sense of this we're talking this week with two school superintendents in very different parts of the state to understand similar challenges and different approaches as they tackle a complex situation.

Credit Rebecca Conley / Maine Public

Ellen Halliday, superintendent of RSU 29 in Aroostook County, tells Maine Public's Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz that planning for this new school year has been like "walking on a very thin tightrope."

Halliday also says she's grateful to live in the county during the pandemic. But like many educators, she finds much of her profession upended.

Halliday: We're planning for our students to come back to school, although we are offering a remote option for those students who can't come back to school, or parents who feel they're not ready to send their students back into the buildings,

Gratz: What kind of feedback have you gotten from parents, faculty, staff to the plan?

So far it's been very positive. People are chipping in, helping out, doing whatever they can to help make this work so that we can get students in front of teachers. We've sent out surveys, tried to gather information on our students and their needs. We did what we call the re-registration form. So all of our students actually re-registered for school, and we were able to ask questions then about would you be choosing in-person instruction? Would you be looking at remote? Do you need transportation? Are you able to transport your children on your own? We've provided as much as we can to our faculty and staff prior to them returning to school.

Are there additional resources that you need to make all of this happen? And at this point, do you have the funding that you would need to pay for those resources?

There are things that we think of every single day that we need that we wouldn't have needed in normal times. We, like many school districts, if not all school districts who are looking at having students in person, have had to order desks, student desks, because many classrooms had tables for small group instruction, and now they need to have desks that they can space for social distancing. We've had to either buy or rent trailers - like tractor-trailer trailers - to store all the extra things that were in classrooms that can't be there in order for those classrooms to accommodate as many students as we can, following social distancing. We've spent a lot, obviously, on technology for our students, additional PPE for everybody - you name it. There's something new every day. We have CARES Act money that we are able to use. We also have some CRF funds - corona relief funds. Honestly, when I saw the amount of money that our district received, I thought, 'Wow, that's great.' I have blown through it. And I'm hoping that the next pot of money is coming soon.

I can see your desk there, which looks really, really neat and clearly belies the complexities of making all this work.

If I could show you the other side of my desk - I've just pushed it all over so that it looks neat for you.

If Congress does indeed approve another pot of money, would it make any basic changes to the plan you have for school?

For me, it would provide the ability for us to consider remaining in in-person instruction. If kids who have chosen remote choose to return, the issue that I have is capacity. Right now we're fitting the numbers that are returning in person into our classrooms. If more come back, our classrooms won't be able to hold them. I may need to rent space in local storefronts or rent a building. I don't know. But I'll need money in order to do that.

But given the age range that we're talking about - everyone from kindergarteners to high school students - where are going to be the challenges in getting the kids to do the right things?

One of the things that we're doing for our youngest students is our teachers - bless them - are making little videos to go home, where they show what they look like without a mask and with a mask, so that these kids who might be seeing their teacher for the very first time get to see that face ahead of time. Obviously, we'll have mask breaks throughout our day. But that's just one way. We're making videos at each of our schools that show, 'Here's what it will look like when you come to school. Here's how we'll get off the bus. Here's how we'll enter the building. Here's how we walk down the halls. Here's how we're going to do our lunches.' All of those things that we can prep ahead of time are really important.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Originally published at 7:05 a.m. Sept. 9, 2020.