When COVID-19 first hit Maine last March, school buildings quickly shut down - first for two weeks, then for the rest of the school year - as a way to slow the spread of the virus. Learning continued online, but many students faced a lot of challenges, from limited internet access to the loss of school-based services. Now, as the virus continues to spread, the vast majority of schools are still preparing to open their doors once again.
So what will school be like over the next few months, and what's being done to make sure students and staff are safe? Many of those questions are still being worked through, but here are a few answers to help sort it all out.
Is it safe to reopen schools this fall?
The Maine Department of Education has taken the central role in helping guide school districts through the reopening process. In July, the department released its initial "Framework for Reopening Schools," which provided a list of new protocols and procedures. Among the recommendations (which touched on planning for health and mental health, nutrition and safety), the state also announced that it would devise a color-coded status for each county describing its relative risk, based on public health data such as daily case rates of COVID-19, and hospitalizations.
In late July, the state released its initial ratings, with every single county receiving a "green" designation, meaning they had a relative low risk of spread, and that schools could consider reopening fully.
“The green here is not like the green light at a drag strip," Dr. Nirav Shah said at a press briefing announcing the initial designations. "It does not mean you push your feet on the accelerator and go as fast as possible. The green light here is really more like the green light at a car wash, right? You enter slowly, you look around you, with caution, and you are prepared to stop at any time. That's really the way in which these designations are offered. They're cautionary, so that school administrators have all the information from an epidemiological perspective as they're making their decisions on the ground.”
Those ratings will be updated every few weeks and have stayed at "green" statewide, up until last week. That's when, due to increasing daily case rates and several outbreaks, the state reclassified York County as "yellow," meaning that schools there should reconsider fully reopening, and instead look at "hybrid" models, or at adding additional precautions. Every other county remains at "green".
So most schools have the green light to reopen. Are they opening?
At this point, the answers appear to be yes. The vast majority schools in the state - including those in counties with community transmission, such as Cumberland and York - have announced they'll be opening for at least partial in-person instruction. In fact, several school have already opened, with others opening up in mid-to-late September. According to a recent survey from the Maine School Superintendents' Association, 27% of schools plan to re-open completely, while about 70% are starting with a "hybrid reopening," bringing in students only part-time. Only a few districts that responded plan to start using only remote learning.
But reopening won't be easy. The Maine DOE has released six requirements that schools must follow if they want to open their doors. They include:
- Screening for symptoms before coming into school
- Masks required of all staff and students over 5 (with face shields as an acceptable alternative for some children)
- Physical distancing (6 feet for adults, 3 feet for students)
- Hand hygiene (i.e. washing or sanitizing multiple times per day)
- PPE for staff in closes proximity to student
Those requirements - particularly physical distancing - have posed a challenge. Many districts have said that due to space constraints, they're planning to stay with a "hybrid" model, with one cohort of students coming in for a few days per week, and another cohort coming in on the other days.
Schools are also scrambling to find more teachers, custodians, bus monitors, nurses and other school staff, But with the state already facing a severe shortage of many of those positions, it won't be easy to fill all the new jobs. And those shortages could impact whether schools can re-open too.
How different will schools look?
That depends on what district a student attends, but probably pretty different. As one example, take Fort Street Elementary School. The school in rural Mars Hill, in central Aroostook County, was one of the first in the state to open in mid-August. Despite being in a region with few active cases, a lot of precautions have still been put in place: students only go for half a day; temperatures are taken as they enter the building; lunch is eaten in classrooms; and social distancing and masks are enforced across the entire school. Teachers even walk outside with their students in the middle of class periods for "mask breaks" that allow them to stretch and remove their face covering for a bit.
Districts are also using much of the $165 million in federal funds allocated to them by the state to rent or upgrade their buildings - or even just purchase box fans and air purifiers to circulate air. Those are needed, as so many of Maine's school buildings are aging, and the state Department of Education estimates that about 20% of buildings don't have a mechanical ventilation system. Districts are also looking to spend those funds on building new outdoor classrooms where students can spread out and learn in nature.
In general, how do teachers and other staff feel about these changes?
That also varies, but everyone from teachers to bus drivers and school nurses have all expressed some concerns about returning. The prevailing theme from many teachers is this: while school administrators are trying their hardest to create a safe environment to return to, many questions are still going unanswered. Many are still unsure about how to maintain proper social distancing when young students may need help or how to enforce mask-wearing in a classroom.
Gerry French, a bus driver for RSU 71 in Belfast, says he worries about following social distancing in the tightly confined space of his bus.
"Fifty or 60 students could pass to get on that bus to go to school, and they have to pass to get off," French says. "Then they have to pass again to get on. But by the time it's said and done, you're talking nearly 200 students have been within inches of you in one given day. Which is 1,000 in a week."
"Somebody has got to enforce the mask policy," he adds. "How much extra time would somebody want me to not be looking at the road and be looking at, you know, my kindergarten kids who don't like masks and don't understand pandemics? I just don't understand how much more time I'm supposed to not be looking at the road and be looking at these students, to police that?"
Those kinds of unanswered questions have already led teachers in several districts to push back on re-opening plans. After Lewiston teachers urged the school system to reconsider its plans, the district voted to delay the first day of school until September 14.
With all of these "hybrid" schedules, where will students go when school isn't in session?
It's long been difficult for parents to afford and find child care in Maine, but the pandemic has only exacerbated the problem. With many schools opening up using "hybrid" schedules, in which children only go to school two or three days per week, thousands of young children may suddenly need to be supervised for the days they're not in class. The issue becomes even more complicated by the fact that many teachers need child care for their own kids.
In response, there's been a wave of new approaches across the state. Many districts have partnered with nonprofits such as the YMCA to launch day care programs, with funding they hope will be coming from about $25 million in federal CARES Act money that the governor has allocated. Some districts, such as the Westbrook School Department, are using the funds to start their own centers. And the Margaret Murphy Centers for Children, a special-purpose private school for students with disabilities, has created its own childcare specifically for its teachers and staff.
There's also a movement happening outside of school systems. Karate studios and bowling alleys have recently announced plans to become full-day "remote learning centers," with counselors assisting students with their school work on days they're not in class. Many parents have said that they're working together to create informal "pandemic pods" where they can share child care and remote learning duties. Even with all of these new startups, though, providers say they're still hearing about a huge need for child care, with waiting lists ballooning to 20 or 30 in some facilities.
If you're a parent still looking for child care, the state suggests you should look online, at ChildCareChoices.me, to find slots near you.
And what happens if the virus surges once again?
If the virus begins to spread even more in the state, we would likely see state officials begin to change their risk designations for schools, going from "green" to "yellow" or "red."
And if cases spike once again, we'll likely see a transition back to remote learning. We've already seen that happen in some areas. Recent outbreaks in York County prompted the state to re-classify it as "yellow." And in East Millinocket, officials have pushed off the start of in-person classes until early October, after the outbreak from a nearby wedding involved several teachers, staff members and students.
Worries about potential spread of the virus are prompting thousands of parents across Maine to choose to keep their children at home. Many districts are offering remote learning options on top of in-person classes. Some schools are even installing video cameras in classrooms so families can watch lessons from the home. The state has purchased thousands of devices and developed a database of resources to assist districts in remote learning, but local officials say that internet access remains a challenge for many students, particularly in more rural areas of the state.
Districts say they're in a far better position to educate students if forced to move to remote learning again. But they're hoping that won't happen.
Do you have any questions or concerns about school reopening in Maine or your district? Are you a student, parent, or teacher who wants to share your own story? If so, you can reach out to Maine Public at firstname.lastname@example.org