Michelle Dunham, fourth grade teacher at Farwell Elementary School in Lewiston, waves to a parent after handing off a Chromebook laptop computer during a drive-by distribution Tuesday. The School Department is lending laptops to families of elementary students so parents can do videoconferences. The laptops also enable teachers to do social and emotional check-ins with students and parents. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — Lewiston Superintendent Todd Finn sent a letter to families Wednesday informing them the district would be moving ahead with “phase three” of its remote learning plan, which takes the department through June.

The statement was similar to many Maine school districts, which sent notices to families after state Education Commissioner Pender Makin recommended Tuesday that districts across the state continue remote learning for the rest of the school year, rather than try to reopen schools that were closed last month because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Finn said Thursday that rather than keeping the decision open-ended, he wanted teachers and parents to be able to “plan solidly,” because it impacts child care, jobs and other considerations outside of school.

“What it does is it allows people to have a bit of a mourning period about not being able to go back into our buildings for a couple more months,” he said. “It does hit hard. But if we think about it, we’ll have to be really innovative in making up for it. Then the question is, what can we do to move forward.”

Finn said he’s thankful the district was able to distribute Chromebook laptops to families earlier this week, which will be used for remote instruction and for teachers to conduct one-on-one checks with students.

The letter to parents said the last day of remote learning will be June 8.

While Lewiston joined the likes of many southern Maine districts such as Portland, South Portland, Westbrook and more in making the decision Wednesday, other central Maine districts are holding off on making an official call while still planning for the possibility.

Makin and the Maine Department of Education issued another statement Thursday further explaining the recommendations.

Makin said she announced her recommendation now “in order to give families and schools time to plan and provide alternative ways to celebrate and conduct end-of-year events.”

“School administrators, staff, students, and communities deserve as accurate a picture as we can provide with respect to this evolving situation, and it will require a longer term continuation of remote instruction,” she said.

In Auburn, Superintendent Katy Grondin informed families of the state recommendations, and said she will discuss her proposal for the last student day with the School Committee at next week’s meeting.

The district’s plans for remote learning through May 1 will continue, she said, with more details finalized next week.

“The district plans have been developed in anticipation that we may not be able to return to school before the end of the year,” her letter said. “On April 15, during the 6 p.m. School Committee workshop, I will be sharing with the School Committee a proposal for the last student day if we are not able to return to school this school year.”

She said she will also discuss other updates to the plan regarding end-of-the-year items, including prekindergarten and kindergarten registration, summer school and graduation. There’s also still “unknowns” regarding whether students will be able to retrieve items that had been left at school buildings prior to the closures.

“We’re working really hard,” she said. “The teachers are doing an amazing job, and so are parents,” adding that she feels it’s important to have the School Committee weigh in on the final student day before a decision is made.

“I don’t think there’s a huge hurry right now because we were already out through May 1,” she said.

Elsewhere in Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties, school officials are still working through end-of-year plans.

In RSU 4, which includes Sabattus, Litchfield and Wales, Superintendent Andrew Carlton sent a letter to families Wednesday stating the district is preparing to extend remote learning until the end of the school year, but they are remaining optimistic “that we will be able to come back to our school in our buildings at some point.”

“While I do not believe it will happen, I still hold out hope that I will be able to walk the halls of our schools this year (at least one more time) and see students and staff back in them,” he said.

In RSU 16, which is Poland, Minot and Mechanic Falls, Superintendent Ken Healey sent a message to parents stating the district will follow the state recommendation.

“We met with the commissioner this morning and the best advice we received was to plan for continued remote learning for the remainder of the school year. That is exactly what we will do in RSU 16,” he said. “If the governor’s stay-at-home order is lifted and community health markers indicate we can come together, then we may return to school. We understand this would take a miracle, but we are holding onto that sliver of hope our students and staff can have a chance to have closure for this academic year.”

Similar statements were posted by officials in RSU 73, in Jay, Livermore, and Livermore Falls; Oxford Hills at MSAD 17; RSU 9 in Farmington, and others.

In Lisbon, Superintendent Richard Green posted a statement Wednesday that there is still a chance “we could return to classroom-based instruction, prior to our last day in June, if in fact it was determined to again be safe.”

But, he added, he believes “it is unlikely that we will be allowed to return,” and he told families the district will follow the recommendation.

Finn said Thursday that he believes there’s been some misconceptions about what remote learning means for students. He said most believe students and teachers simply use laptops to “replicate,” via videoconference, a full day of instruction.

But, he says, it’s more nuanced than that.

He said it can be done in a lot of ways: worksheets and packets, online courses, videos or audiobooks. It doesn’t just have to be Zoom sessions or Google classrooms, he said. Going forward, the district is going to encourage students to supplement online classroom sessions with art projects, or something as simple as “going for a walk in the woods, and writing about it.”

“If the expectation was students wake up and sit behind a computer from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., that’s not sustainable and its not feasible,” he said. “It’s a recipe for burnout.”

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