August d’Ambruoso, 9, a fourth-grader at Ocean Avenue School in Portland, works on his schoolwork in the family dining room using his iPad this month. August said he can’t wait to go back to “regular school.” Brianna Soukup/Staff

Maine school districts starting to plan for a return to classes in the fall are facing a myriad of questions about how to do so safely, even while not knowing how the coronavirus will affect life in Maine months from now.

Will students and teachers have to wear masks? How often will bathrooms need to be cleaned? How do you keep second-graders 6 feet apart from one another in a classroom? Will fall sports happen? Could one case of the virus upend the entire school year?

Businesses, hotels and restaurants are already starting to reopen in ways that limit gatherings and provide for safe distancing. But it’s much more complicated for schools, where hundreds if not thousands of students and teachers pass though the same doors and hallways daily and where children interact in a variety of challenging settings, from classrooms to cafeterias to locker rooms. 

Schools leaders have the advantage of being able to plan over the summer, with the hope that the virus threat will have mitigated when September rolls around. But they also are under pressure to start planning and budgeting for the unknown now, especially as parents look to their own return to work.

“When I think about schools, it’s kind of like a cruise ship,” said Lou Goscinski, superintendent of the York School Department, a district of about 1,700 students. “We’re feeding people. People are recreating. We have gym classes. We’re learning centers. This is a really difficult challenge for public schools.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week released new guidelines for schools that are in communities where transmission levels are low and that may be able to scale up operations.

At the same time, some colleges and universities have announced they will move classes online, delay the start of school or offer students a mix of online and in-person options.

“Our hope, of course, is to have every single child and all teachers back in a safe, healthy environment at school,” said Maine Commissioner of Education Pender Makin in a May 15 media briefing.

However, she said, the Department of Education is also preparing for a range of scenarios, including: a full return to in-person school; a partial return to school with at-home options for those who are at risk or in high-risk categories; a continuation of remote learning; and a fourth scenario in which students and teachers return to school but are forced to respond to a resurgence of the virus

Recommendations released by the department last week for how Maine schools can navigate summer programming offer a hint of what they might be considering for the fall.

They include student teacher ratios of no more than 10 to one; instructions for how students can do daily health checks at home; and Plexiglas dividers and face shields for bus drivers. Students are encouraged to bring minimal belongings from home and to keep them with them rather than use lockers or cubbies.

It’s not clear how schools would achieve the smaller classes, but options might include having groups of students come in for half days or every other day.

The recommendations also suggest staggering start times; seating students 6 feet apart; keeping playground equipment off-limits; and eating lunch in classrooms rather than a cafeteria.

Guidance for the fall, meanwhile, is still being developed and likely will not be finalized until late summer, said department spokeswoman Kelli Deveaux.

“Given the evolving nature of this pandemic, any guidance provided on what the start of school year 2020-2021 will look like will be based on what we know at the time, and may continue to be revised, based on the most updated information available,” Deveaux said in an email.

Ocean Avenue School first-grader Greta d’Ambruoso, 6, with her distance learning in the living room on Thursday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The Maine Education Association, a union representing almost 24,000 educators statewide, is recommending that districts also form health and safety councils at the local level to bring together administrators, educators, parents and community members to talk about the best and safest way to reopen schools.

“There are many concerns,” said Grace Leavitt, president of the MEA. “Certainly everybody wants to get back to school and in-person instruction, but first and foremost this has to be done in a safe way and it needs to be safe for everybody. … Figuring out everything that needs to happen is very complex and also we keep getting new info each day on what might be needed.”

Some school districts in southern Maine said they have already started to plan for the fall and are weighing the same questions as the Department of Education.

“I think it’s important for families to understand we have every intention of starting school in the fall in the way that is closest to what the experience has traditionally been for our students,” said Portland Public Schools Superintendent Xavier Botana.

“At the same time, we will balance that with the public health and public safety requirements in place. Our commitment is, if we wind up having to have remote school, remote learning will be stronger and better than what it has been this year.”

Portland has put together a team to plan for a return to school and Botana said the district will also be looking to the guidance from the state and federal governments about the best way to reopen.

Will d’Ambruoso looks at his son August’s, 9, school work in the dining room while Abby d’Ambruoso sits with their daughter Greta, 6, in their living room on May 14. August is a fourth-grader at Ocean Avenue Elementary, and Greta is a first-grader. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

In South Portland, Superintendent Ken Kunin said his district has also begun to plan for the fall. They’re looking at a range of scenarios, including how to improve remote learning, if it’s still needed.

Kunin said it’s too early to say what social distancing will look like in a reopened school, but it could include bringing students back in small groups or requiring that they sit farther apart on school buses, for example.

“Coming back after the entire community has been through quite a traumatic experience, even if we are coming back to school as ‘normal,’ it will be a very different start to the school year,” Kunin said.

Parents, too, are worried about the social and academic toll that school shutdowns will have taken. Even if schools return to in-person instruction, teachers will have to help students readjust to the schedule and social atmosphere of school while also addressing any learning gaps that have resulted from the disruption.

“We’ve been thinking about the fall since we were sent home,” said Abby d’Ambruoso, the mother of a first- and fourth-grader at Ocean Avenue School in Portland. “Every parent is thinking about how we can help our child get through this difficult time and also what it might mean for the fall.”

She said her children miss their friends and teachers, and that it would be good for schools to think about how to provide closure for students so they can say goodbye and thank their current teachers.

Ocean Avenue School fourth-grader August d’Ambruoso, 9, works on his schoolwork in the dining room while his sister, first-grader Greta d’Ambruoso, 6, works in the living room on May 14. August said he can’t wait to go back to, “regular school.” Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“I think all kids are having a hard time,” d’Ambruoso said. “Whether they’re academically adjusting to online school or not, the social aspects of school are so important. Our kids spend several hours of their best time every day with their teachers, with their classmates, with the staff at the school. They miss them.”

In York, Goscinski said administrators realize the tremendous burden school shutdowns have had on families, which is one reason his district is trying to develop plans for the fall as early as possible.

Every aspect of operations is being looked at, from whether food can be safely prepared and served in the cafeteria to what kind of personal protective equipment might be needed for janitors.

“It’s not a matter of just hiring more custodians,” Goscinski said. “It’s (also) with those custodians, what plans are you going to have in place to protect them and what type of cleaning protocols are you going to have?”

Another reason to plan ahead is so districts can set school budgets, which normally need to be in place by July 1.

“If you’re going to focus on digital instruction for a year, you need to make some major adjustments for purchases for technology,” Goscinski said. “There’s an overwhelming need for technology right now and we’re going to be competing with other school districts.”

In Scarborough, Superintendent Sanford Prince said the district has budgeted for the hiring of two additional school nurses, is thinking about ways to intensify the cleaning and disinfection of schools, and will be assessing details such as whether to allow visitors in school buildings and whether to open playgrounds.

“We’re planning for this,” Prince said. “I don’t know what all this will look like. My hope is this virus will go away and never come back, but I think it’s likely it could come back.”

All of the planning also is happening against a backdrop of financial uncertainty.

Districts in Maine are expecting to receive about $39 million in federal CARES Act relief to help offset pandemic-related expenses, but some are still bracing for budget impacts.

In Portland, the proposed school budget includes a COVID-19 contingency fund of $200,000 to $500,000 to cover virus-related expenses, and Botana said it will be important for the district to be financially flexible.

This spring Portland ran up about $1.1 million in additional costs and revenue losses from the virus, including school meal revenue losses, technology costs and increased money for food distribution.  About half of those costs were offset by virus-related savings, such as reduced building operating costs and savings in transportation and on athletic facilities.

“That’s not something that is sustainable in a full school year, so for us to look at ways we would mitigate for those unexpected expenses in real time as opposed to go by balancing the books at the end of the year is going to be imperative,” Botana said.

In Gray-based School Administrative District 15, Superintendent Craig King said his district is also approaching the budget season with caution. He has proposed a zero percent tax increase out of concern a projected state revenue shortfall could impact how much state funding goes to schools.

“When this first began, we kept getting information coming in,” King said. “We had to be pretty nimble in our ability to change. Are we in the beginning of this? Are we in the middle? Or are we towards the end? We’re planning as though we’re still in the first parts of it.”

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