In just a few weeks, the first schools in Maine could reopen after being shut down since March because of COVID-19. And with new state guidelines and requirements, school will likely look a lot different.
In recent days, several districts have begun releasing their own reopening plans. Maine Public’s Robbie Feinberg has been looking them over and talking to school leaders to understand just how different things might be. He talked about the plans with Maine Public’s Ed Morin.
Ed. note: Interview has been edited for length and clarity
Morin: So, first, just catch us up — what's the latest on how the state is approaching reopening schools?
Feinberg: Last week, Gov. Janet Mills announced that on July 31, the state will look at public health data and assign each county in Maine a color — red, yellow, or green — indicating whether it's advisable for schools there to reopen completely for in-person classes, to stay closed and continue doing remote learning, or to look at a hybrid of the two. The state also announced several different requirements last week for schools to reopen: social distancing, masks are required for teachers and students over age two, and students will be screened for symptoms before coming in. The state is also providing $165 million in federal CARES Act funds to help schools adapt, which is about half of what the state DOE has estimated schools might need.
So if school can reopen come fall, what do we expect it to look like?
So over the past few days, we've started to get some hints. Schools have begun releasing their own draft reopening plans. And things are likely going to change for students before they even leave the house. For example, in Bangor, the district is planning to ask both staff and students to complete health screening questions every day to make sure students aren't showing symptoms. There will be temperature checks for everyone before they even go inside a school building, plus additional screening, if that's needed.
And besides that, even getting to school is going to change, too. Instead of around 60 kids on a bus, there might only be maybe 15 or 20 instead because of social distancing. So that raises a lot of questions about possibly needing more bus drivers and buses to get kids to schools. But the plan in Bangor, says superintendent Betsy Webb, is for many students and families to transport themselves to school, if possible: “At this point, 65 percent of our parents are saying they can transport their own children, or their children have transportation. Obviously, we know that could change. But at this point, we believe that we will certainly be able to transport everybody who needs transportation with our current bus fleet.”
And schools also need to figure out what classrooms look like.
Right. And this is where things get even trickier. So there are some basic changes that many schools are planning — things like students eating lunch in their classrooms instead of cafeterias, increased hand washing, far more frequent disinfecting, and limiting how many times a day students transition between classes. And if schools do need to use a blended, "hybrid" model, the general thought is to have two cohorts of students. One group comes in two days a week, and the other group comes in on another two days. But even that hybrid model will look different from district to district. For example, the South Portland School Department has said that it's looking at providing additional in-person services for English-language learners and students with disabilities, who school leaders say have struggled with learning through a screen.
And Jeremy Ray, the superintendent in Biddeford, says even in a blended model, he's still hoping to have all the younger children — from kindergarten through eighth grade — back in the classroom, to help families with child care, but also for the sake of child development:
"I think from an educational standpoint, we know that if our youngest are not reading on grade level by third grade, that sets them up for many academic challenges later on. And so looking at how we can preserve some of our time with kids, and do it in a safe way, is just a goal for us."
And even with many precautions in place, schools and advocates say many parents are planning to keep their students home because of the risk of infection. Knowing that, several school districts told Maine Public that even if they are cleared for in-person instruction, they're also planning to continue to offer remote learning options for those families.
And with social distancing, how are schools going to fit all these students inside their buildings?
This is still a big question for a lot of districts. For example, Biddeford Superintendent Jeremy Ray says in order to space students out, his district is looking at actually leasing additional space and moving students into different buildings. And this is where those additional state resources come into play. Schools are hoping to spend funds on expenses like that.
But some districts are concerned that even with additional funding, going back fully will be a big challenge. Tim Doak is the superintendent for both RSU 39 in Caribou, and MSAD 20 in Fort Fairfield. He sees a lot of obstacles, including having enough space. Plus, he says additional staff could be needed to drive, teach and clean. And finding that staff can be particularly difficult in a state that's already facing a teacher and bus driver shortage. He says that could make it hard to bring all students back, even if Aroostook County is given the green light:
“Every district has their own resource issues, their own space issues. Their own population issues. Right down to the number of teachers who can return to work. I think when you signify the green, yellow, red, everyone thinks, 'Oh, we can do this'. But very few people take into consideration all the ramifications around returning.”
Right now, Doak says he's leaning towards being cautious in his own district and potentially starting more slowly, possibly with a hybrid model.
Those are a lot of challenges. How are teachers feeling about them right now?
Some teachers are still very much concerned about safety come fall. Maine Education Association President Grace Leavitt said that she wasn't sure how schools could actually enforce actions like mask-wearing. And while she was thankful that the state has provided money and equipment like PPE, she says even more funding will be needed to ensure health and safety going forward.
Leavitt also wants to see some resources going towards more staff to help educators as they potentially face teaching in-person classes, hybrid classes, and remote classes at once:
“Either there's additional staff needed to do that, or there's some way to keep that way within reasonable bounds. It's all going to be hard, I realize that. But it can't be that teachers are going to put in 12-hour days, or longer.”
The state has also said it's hoping to get more federal money to provide even more assistance to districts going forward.
For disclosure, the Maine Education Association represents most of Maine Public's news staff.