Online Learning, Meal Distribution And More — Maine Schools Face New Challenges Following Closures

Mar 16, 2020

As part of Gov. Janet Mills' weekend declaration of a "civil emergency" to limit the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, the state is recommending that schools "cease classroom-based instruction as soon as practicable and for an indefinite period of time."

That decision comes after dozens of districts across the state already announced closures in recent days. Many are moving toward online and "remote learning" options for the foreseeable future. Robbie Feinberg spoke with Nora Flaherty to discuss some of the challenges schools face in the weeks to come.

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Flaherty: Robbie, bring us up to date. What steps have schools taken over the past couple of days, and what explains their different approaches?

Feinberg: We really saw things begin to change over the weekend, when dozens of school districts announced that they would close in an effort to limit exposure to the virus. This began with schools on Mount Desert Island on Friday, but by Saturday night several schools in York and Cumberland County announced that they would close for at least two weeks. A few districts, including RSU 71 in the Belfast area, announced that they would close even longer, through the end of school vacation in late April.

I spoke with Education Commissioner Pender Makin Monday. She acknowledged that many districts and superintendents faced substantial pressure from families, experts and outside groups about whether to close or not. But she says the state held off on any statewide recommendations before community transmission was detected Sunday because of the different circumstances of districts across the state:

“It was a very difficult decision to make, this recommendation to superintendents,” Makin says. “Because we know what kinds of inequities, economic hardship, child care issues and educational deficits that could result from any type of school closure. And particularly one that may last for a period of time.”

Flaherty: So how are the schools dealing with these extended closures?

Feinberg: Many are still figuring out their own situations right now. One of the biggest immediate concerns has been around school nutrition. School-provided free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch are crucial for a lot of families across the state. So many districts have launched a few different strategies. Some are looking at handing out food at distribution sites, somewhat similar to the Summer Food Service program that many schools participate in already.

In an alert Sunday, Portland Public Schools says it is working toward setting up those distribution sites by Wednesday. But in the meantime, the district is working with the nonprofit Full Plates, Full Potential, which recruited a number of restaurants in the area to provide meals.

But for more rural areas, that's a lot more difficult. So one strategy that some districts are using is to use school buses as something like a food delivery service. Mark Turner, the superintendent of RSU 87 in Carmel, says that in his district, school buses went out on their normal routes at 8 a.m. this morning, but instead of picking up students, they delivered breakfast and lunch to any students who wanted them.

"They rode their routes. There were many places where people were out there ahead of time, they could take what they needed,” Turner says. “And our goal is to get better and better at it as time pushes forward.”

Flaherty: And what's the plan for if schools will continue classes this year?

Feinberg: That's really varying across districts. Some, like RSU 87, are holding off on academics for now. Superintendent Mark Turner says if the closure only lasts two weeks, the district will just hold classes over April break to make most of that up. But if schools were closed for longer, he says the district would then join many others around the state in moving towards "remote" or online learning options. That will likely mean using online tools and resources like Google Classroom to keep some classes going virtually.

But even that's not an option for every district. For example, Bangor Superintendent Betsy Webb says that because many of the students in her district have no access to the internet at home, schools have instead distributed take-home packets for students. Webb says teachers will still be accessible to students and will be checking in daily, whether by email or phone. But, she told me that no matter what kind of substitute is developed, this will be a challenge.

“Quality of the teacher and their interaction with a student really determines the most successful learning environment,” Webb says. “I really think that happens in a classroom, with face-to-face interaction. But in this circumstance, we'll do the next best thing. Which is to make sure everybody is safe. And we'll do our part to flatten the curve.”

Flaherty: With such an extended closure, do we know what if districts will have to make these days up?

Feinberg: The DOE says details around that are still evolving, but Makin says that should be addressed in the governor's upcoming emergency bill. Also, this is typically the month when students begin to take standardized tests. The commissioner says the state is seeking flexibility on that, and says it's difficult to imagine when it would be appropriate to implement standardized tests at this point.

Flaherty: That's Maine Public Radio reporter Robbie Feinberg. Thanks, Robbie.

Feinberg: Thanks, Nora.