While most schools in Maine are still putting the finishing touches on reopening plans for September, a few communities in northern Maine that have to schedule a break for the potato harvest have already reopened this week.
As part of Maine Public’s series, Deep Dive: Coronavirus, Robbie Feinberg visited one of those districts in Aroostook County, for a preview of what school might look this fall.
After five long months of being apart, sixth-grader Charlie Pierce says she could not wait to go back to Mars Hill's Fort Street Elementary School Wednesday.
“I was really excited to go back to school. It's a lot different, but I'm glad to be back to see all my friends and all the teachers and everything,” Pierce says. “But it's really different.”
Most of Pierce's morning routine at home is the same as it ever was: wake up before the sun rises, feed the cattle outside, eat breakfast. But now before she gets in the car, Charlie and her three sisters grab their masks, and their mom, Ami, asks them a few questions: "Is everybody feeling okay? Nobody has scratchy throats or coughs? You tasted your breakfast, right?"
After they are dropped off at the school's entrance, the students stand in a line, six-feet apart, and walk towards a teacher, thermometer in hand, for a temperature check before going to class.
Charlie Pierce says she has been okay with a lot of these changes, but some of them are hard to get used to.
“We have to keep our distance, and we have to wear a mask. And we can't hug anybody,” says Pierce. “So It's just really hard, and not being able to be right by your friend, it's really different. My friends kind of really wanted to hug me."
"We had talked about keeping our distance, because we are huggers by nature," Ami Pierce adds, laughing. "We don't often run into a friend where there's not a hug involved. So yeah, I had prepped them to keep in mind where you are and what you're doing here."
The masks, temperature checks and social distancing measures are all part of the new procedures at Fort Street Elementary, one of the first in the state to reopen on Wednesday. The school has always come back early, in order to accommodate the three-week potato harvest break in the fall.
“The parents and the community have been waiting for us to go back to school for a long time,” says Elaine Boulier, the superintendent for the district, MSAD 42 in Central Aroostook County. The county currently has no active cases of COVID-19. Boulier says while a few families have chosen to keep their kids at home, the overwhelming majority have said otherwise.
“In the end, the feedback that we got on surveys was very clear: they wanted kids back in school."
Boulier says the district started planning months ago for how to reopen safely. The eventual decision was to divide students into two groups. Half would go in the morning, half in the afternoon. Many parents would drive students to add more space on buses. Masks or face shields would be required. The district spent $10,000 alone this summer on disinfecting.
And Boulier says because there are only a few hundred students in each school, class sizes could be kept to just five or 10 kids, making social distancing easier.
"This is one time that it's great to live in rural Maine," Boulier says.
But some retrofitting was required. Fans were added everywhere, rooms with no windows required air purifiers, and administrators say they are trying to find ways to accommodate school staff members who are high-risk.
"If I was at a bigger school, like in Georgia, I probably wouldn't have come back," says Samantha Drost, a high school social studies teacher for the district.
Drost has an inflammatory disease, putting her at higher risk for the virus. Initially, she says, she planned to teach on a screen and broadcast her lesson from her room while her students sat in another, with the help of an aide. But Drost says she did not feel connected to her students, so she decided to abandon the set-up and teach them face-to-face.
" I told them right up — I'm like, I am high risk. So you just need to follow what I put out. You need to wear your mask. And we're going to make sure that we clean lots. And if we can do that, then we're going to stay in here."
So far at least, she says, that has worked. Students are following instructions and keeping their masks on. That is, except for five to 10 minute breaks each class period, during which a teacher will take their kids outside and give them a chance to spread out and remove their face covering.
During one such "mask break" at the elementary school, teacher Derek Boudreau says he feels relatively safe and is glad that students are getting the emotional and social support they need at school.
“My major concern is when it starts to get cold and when winter starts to come, I really hope that there's something in place by then that'll help everybody to be more safe, on a national level, not just on a local one. Because winters here get pretty chilly, pretty fast.”
School officials are also concerned about the winter and, in particular, flu season.
But for now, says parent Ami Pierce, it's a relief that life is in some way closer to normal.
“Our kids are ready,” Pierce says. “They need this. Mentally, socially, for all kinds of reasons. They need to be with their peers. It's how we're meant to be, it's part of their growing and learning.”
School reopening challenges will likely be more difficult in the southern part of the state, where larger schools and continued transmission of the virus have prompted many parents and teachers to call on districts to continue remote learning this fall. Several communities have even pushed back the start of school until mid-September — but not in Mars Hill.
You can find out more about our series on how public schools in Maine are preparing to reopen this fall here.
Originally published 5:32 p.m. Aug. 14, 2020.