'Everything Gives Me Anxiety Now:' Amid Uncertainty, Maine Schools Resume Classes In Different Ways

Sep 9, 2020

This week marks the start of a new academic year for most public schools in Maine. There are daunting challenges ahead for teachers, parents, administrators and a generation of children whose progress was stalled when the pandemic hit last spring.

Credit Rebecca Conley / Maine Public

As part of our Deep Dive: Coronavirus coverage, Fred Bever takes a look at the very different approaches taken by two school systems - one in Kittery, which is going "hybrid," and one in Lisbon, which is all in on in-school learning.

As with many schools in Maine now, Kittery's Horace Mitchell Primary School features a big wedding-style tent in its parking lot.

"So there's a pencil there, and there's a little bit of paper work," says kindergarten teacher Heather Normandin.

Normandin and parent Erika Luby met there last week to go over logistics for getting her kids to school and from after-care at the Kittery Community Center.

"The bus just gives me anxiety. Everything gives me anxiety now," Luby says.

"I know, I know," Normandin says. "So in the afternoon, it's bus to..."

 "Bus to KCC," Luby says, finishing the sentence. "And then in the morning I'll drop off."

Luby, a single parent, might be anxious, but she's forging ahead. Her son Conor is entering second grade and her daughter Finleigh is a first-time kindergartner. Today, purple masks on, brother and sister double up on the school playground's zip line.

"We've been practicing mask-wearing at home," Luby says. "We've been talking a lot about how we can play, but how we can play safely. We partnered with a neighbor, so we've actually been doing some things with our neighbor to kind of practice what they're going to need to do in school. Because I also don't want them in trouble all day."

The Mitchell school is offering kindergarten through third grade students a choice between in-school learning and an all-remote option.

Principal Allison Gamache says about a quarter of parents initially opted for all-remote learning, although that could change as parents react to how active the COVID-19 virus might be in the area. Some are homeschooling, or even postponing kindergarten for a year.

But most did decide to keep their kids in school. "For a partial day," Gamache says. "And then up at our middle school - so it's the Shapleigh school, the fourth and fifth graders are doing a shortened day, like we are. And then when they get to sixth grade, they're shifting to a more traditional hybrid model which probably people have heard about - some in-school learning with some remote learning."

With COVID-19 circulating at a heightened rate in York County, Gamache says that even for the in-school program there is going to be an early focus on learning how to use online education tools, such as "Google Classroom" to hedge against another potential shutdown.

She acknowledges that the spring closure set many students back. But it will be a while, she adds, before making assessments of what the educational gap might look like.

"So when students come in we're going to spend the first couple of weeks really letting the kids get back into what school is, and building community again," Gamache says. "I think the first priority is their emotional and social health, and then we'll be able to tackle the academic."

Other schools are similarly concerned for students' all around well-being during the pandemic's dislocations - and for their families' as well. In Lisbon, that meant a choice that just a handful of districts in Maine are making: to provide in-school education only.

Lisbon schools Curriculum Director Julie Colello-Nichols.
Credit Fred Bever / Maine Public

"The plan that everyone in the state has to figure out how to follow, we made as specific to Lisbon as we could," says Julie Colello-Nichols, the district's curriculum director.

Colello-Nichols says for many working families in the area, staying home to oversee their children's online learning simply wasn't an option. And a survey of parents showed wide support for a physical return to school.

"That remote wasn't successful for the majority of our district in the spring," Colello-Nichols says. "What we heard as an overwhelming response was that our students need to be in school with their teachers."

Some parents are balking though - and 10% or more may take their kids out of the system for home schooling or other options.

Some Lisbon teachers are unhappy too.

"We're between a rock and a hard place because neither solution is a good solution," say Patti Mendelson, an eighth-grade science teacher and interim president of the Lisbon teachers' union. 

Lisbon Philip W. Sugg Middle School teachers Amy O'Brien-Brown and Patti Mendelson.
Credit Fred Bever / Maine Public

Mendelson and social studies teacher Amy O'Brien-Brown say administrators have worked doggedly to devise workable solutions.

But like many teachers around the state, they fault state and local administrators for a lack of clarity on just how their guidelines will work on the ground.

They cite a list of worries: a lack of virus testing for staff, overly optimistic predictions of how much space there will be to keep kids distant, and, O'Brien-Brown says, how much time even basic tasks will take.

"O'Brien-Brown: I just don't know how it's going to work," Obrien-Brown says, "how we're going to get our students to lunch, six feet apart, traveling from one end of the school to another."

"Fire drills," Mendelson says.

"Fire drills," says O'Brien-Brown, "these things that, logistically, we just can't wrap our heads around."

Mendelson says the state is failing to address a basic inequity: that smaller, poorer districts, such as Lisbon, don't have the resources they need to put many options on the table, that more parents in better-financed districts have more options.

Still, she says, "Nothing would make us happier than to see Lisbon nail this reopening plan. Because the option is failure. And we can not afford to fail.

And she's worried that if the schools are forced to shut down again, administrators will respond with layoffs.

Back at the Kittery playground, Erika Luby, a single parent, says remote learning wasn't really an option: One of her children has a hearing problem best addressed in a real-world classroom.

Luby says she's looking for the bright side - such as a potential advantage in the school's reduced class sizes this year.

"I'm looking for silver linings in everything," she says. "And, to be honest, I don't think they're ever going to get an education as good as they're going to get this year, to be in such a small classroom with the teachers."

Meanwhile, for those parents who are choosing to keep their kids at home, the state is creating a new suite of online academic modules, featuring local educators. It's designed to help them make a home curriculum that's aligned with the state's assessment standards.

Department of Education Commissioner Pender Makin will formally launch the program Tuesday. It's called "Maine Online Opportunities for Sustained Education," or MOOSE, for short.

Originally published at 7:07 a.m. Sept. 8, 2020.