South Portland Superintendent: 'Everybody's Anxious' As Schools Reopen Amid Pandemic

Sep 8, 2020

South Portland Schools Superintendent Ken Kunin, like many educators, got an unexpected lesson last spring in remote teaching, "It's very different when you're standing in front of your class and you can help them navigate their way through a lesson, through material," he says.

Credit Rebecca Conley / Maine Public

To continue our Deep Dive into school re-opening, Irwin Gratz talked with Kunin about re-opening this fall.  Like many other districts, his will follow a "hybrid" model. 

Kunin: We want to model what other countries have done, and that is to start cautiously and then to build from there. So we'll have about 50% of the students in at a time. Pre-K to 12 will have one cohort of students that will come in on Mondays and Thursdays, and another group of students that will come in on Tuesdays and Fridays. And then on the other three days of the week, they will be engaged in distance learning. And I think that will really help us to see students fairly regularly over the course of a week, and stay connected with them, understand where they're at, and, we hope, make the distance learning more effective. We also have students who, either for health reasons or health reasons in their family, are really not able to come back yet. And so we've developed a fully distance option. Probably about 15 to 20% of our students will start with that option.

Gratz: What kind of feedback have you gotten from parents and teachers to the plan?

Everybody's anxious - there's just no question about that. And that's rational. This is a pandemic, it's reasonable to be anxious. I think parents are either very, very anxious and will not send their kids back at all. And so they have that choice. Or say. "What's going on, let's just get on with it and get them back to school,' you know, and that's their choice. But it's harder for the teachers because they want to be back with their students. But there's an anxiety about, you know, will this lead to illness? What's going to happen? Will bringing all these people together, yin one place cause an uptick in the illness? And we're certainly making plans with our school nurses, with our medical guidance, public health guidance, to mitigate whatever risk there is, but it is certainly still rational to be anxious and worried.

What additional resources do you need to actually make this happen? And do you have enough funding for that?

I think we have adequate finances to open school. Whether we have enough in the second half of this school year - and, really, frankly, I'm more worried about 2021-22 because of the impact on the state economy. What will happen with tax revenues? What will happen with school subsidies and school funding? That's really where my bigger worry is.

If Congress decides to approve more federal aid for schools, as has been tossed around recently, does that necessarily change any of your plans for this school year?

It may help us to improve the distance learning option for kids who just aren't able to come to school because we'd be able to pursue hiring additional staffing - and so really have it a more personal connection. Because right now, when we're spreading students out over a number of different options, that spreads our already depleted staff thin. I think it would also really allow us to pay specific and special attention to children who are living in poverty, and children who are learning English as a second, third or fourth language, and for children with special needs, because we know that this school disruption is disproportionately impacting them.

Any other thoughts as this new school year approaches?

On August 19, I sent out a newsflash to all of our families, just stressing how important those face coverings are, and how important following those three W's - you know, wearing your face covering, washing your hands, watching your distance - are going to be for a successful school year.

Certainly, for certain ages those messages can go out, and you can probably get some reasonable compliance. But what about the youngest children, the kindergarteners the first graders?

I think we can create a culture of compliance by just having very tight, reasonable routines, really giving developmentally appropriate messages about why this is important. I think with special needs students who really can't understand those messages and really, physically, may have a hard time tolerating face coverings or masks, it will be difficult, and then, you know, for high school students, just because they're teenagers, and sometimes teenagers do what teenagers do. On the other hand, a lot of our students work in the community. And when I go to Hannaford and I go to Shaw's, I see them working and I see them with their face coverings on, because that is important to them - keeping that job. We're hoping that being in school, earning credits and moving forward is also important, and that that will help us to get that culture of compliance.

South Portland Schools Superintendent Ken Kunin. On Wednesday's Morning Edition, Irwin Gratz will talk with Ellen Halliday, superintendent of schools for RSU 29 in Aroostook County.