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Why Some Maine Schools Are Staying Remote This Fall

Baxter Academy in Portland prepares care packages for its students, who are learning remotely this year.

So far, many schools in Maine say they’ve been pleased as they’ve welcomed students back into the classroom this fall. But COVID-19 risks still exist in and outside of school: in just the past week, positive cases prompted schools in Harpswell, Sanford and Dixfield to close their doors for at least a few weeks.

That continued risk of transmission has led a few other schools in Maine to hold off on reopening and stick with remote learning this fall instead.

Portland’s Baxter Academy operates differently than most schools in the state. For one thing, it’s a charter school that specializes in science and technology. It also serves students from 60 towns, and many rely on buses or public transportation to get to the high school. That’s a red flag for transmission of the novel coronavirus. And so is the way Baxter’s lunch breaks are taken.

“We have an open campus system. And so at lunchtime, for instance, everyone will go out into the community,” says Kelli Pryor, the school’s executive director.

Pryor says there’s no gymnasium or cafeteria. Instead, they stop for lunch at nearby restaurants and play basketball on local courts.

“But really, we don’t have the communal gathering spaces in the school that are typical,” she says. “We have narrow, five-foot hallways that don’t allow for six-foot social distancing. And smaller classrooms, because we break out of those classrooms often and out into the city of Portland.”

Ordinarily, Pryor says, that freedom helps to set the school apart. But when administrators looked at potentially bringing all those students back together, into a packed school, during a pandemic, the choice quickly became clear: Baxter would stay remote until the virus was under control.

“It was clear to us pretty early on that we were not going to be able to observe the health and safety requirements required of schools,” she says.

Baxter is one of just a few schools that has decided to stick with remote learning. A recent survey from the Maine School Superintendents Association found that the vast majority of schools in Maine planned to offer some type of in-person learning this fall — either full or part time.

“Right around the middle of July to the end of July, we looked out our window and realized there were very nearly as many people here as there are in a typical year. And that was kind of scary,” says Mount Desert Island High School Principal Matt Haney.

Haney says when his school district began considering reopening this summer, several factors gave them pause. They had questions about the supply of personal protective equipment and building ventilation. But there were also concerns about the number of out-of-state tourists packing Bar Harbor.

“There was an amazing amount of concern - like, what is this going to mean? Does this mean that we are going to wind up inheriting some of the viral load that has been going on around the country?” he says.

The area has, so far, avoided the worst of the pandemic. But after talking with local public health experts, the school decided in August to hold off on reopening until Sept. 28, when the worst of the tourist season had passed. Even so, about 20 percent of parents are keeping their children at home.

“They’re doing remote, at least through the first quarter of the school year, and then they can decide at that point whether to come in or not,” Haney says.

At the Indian Island School, which serves about 90 students on the Penobscot Nation reservation, buildings will likely be closed even longer. Principal Annemarie Swanson says because of the Penobscots’ large elderly population, public health experts and tribal officials recommended that school stay remote for the foreseeable future.

“The school is right across the street from the assisted living center. We have a lot of families. It’s a very communal atmosphere here, on the reservation. It’s a very close-knit community. The public health situation is what they were trying to look at. And in an abundance of caution, we went remote,” she says.

Swanson says the decision has been hard on parents. Many are juggling work, home-schooling and child care. But Swanson says the school is trying to help by holding weekly online meetings and asking families what they need. Right now, she’s trying to get students noise-canceling headphones to help them concentrate while they work.

“So it’s just case-by-case. I’m learning, I’m trying to listen to my parents. And then see, what can I do to make this work for them?” she says.

At Baxter Academy, Pryor says some families have opted to leave because they prefer in-person schooling. Others have chosen Baxter because of its remote approach.

But she acknowledges that so much time on a computer can leave any student fatigued. So, this week, the school is sending out big boxes to every student. They’re filled with books, lab equipment, components to build robots — anything that can be used offline.

“Doing things asynchronously that don’t tie them to their computers. To get them out into the world and moving around,” Pryor says.

She says the school hopes the projects can keep students connected with each other, and the world, beyond their computers.