PARIS — If families found distance learning during COVID-19 to be confusing and isolating they are finding that making plans to go back is just as exasperating.  Maine’s Department of Education has authorized schools in all counties to reopen this fall, as long as schools can comply with six safety protocol requirements.

The conditions were issued on Jul. 31 and stipulate that everyone who enters the school or boards a bus – students and employees alike – will be expected to pre-screen for coronavirus and flu-like symptoms before they leave their home. Social distancing – in some instances six feet and in some instances only three feet – is required.

Facial coverings are required for all, with few strict exceptions that may allow for the substitution of plastic face shields. Hand-hygiene protocols will be instituted and situations requiring additional personal protective equipment have been outlined.

Perhaps the easiest requirement to understand is the final one: sick staff members and students must use home isolation until they meet criteria for returning to school.

Maine’s Center for Disease Control has designated all of Maine’s 16 counties as safe to reopen, which is intended for guidance in decision-making only. Maine DOE has left decisions on how (or not) to reopen to individual school district superintendents. But if a school finds that it will not be able to open its doors in compliance of all of the six standards administrators will be compelled to utilize either remote learning or a hybrid process. One example would be that attendance must stay below the maximum number of people allowed in a public space.

In anticipation of reopening, last month SAD 17 administrators asked all families and staff to participate in a survey to communicate their perspectives and plans for the 2020-21 school year. The survey was followed by a registration notice to choose either in-person or remote learning. Many parents have been frustrated that they were given only a week to register their children for either in-school or remote learning.

Superintendent Rick Colpitts reported on Tuesday that parents of close to 2,500 students have completed the registration process so far. He said that 17% have opted to start the school year in distance learning and 83% have opted for a return to school.

Parents also have the option to do home-schooling for the year; traditionally 100-125 students are already in home-schooling programs. Colpitts said he expects that number will tick up by September but so far the number is not trending up.

The state reopening mandate includes strict protocols for social distancing on school buses. One of the first issues SAD 17 had to address was how transportation will work. The initial survey included questions about parents’ abilities to drive their kids to and from school. Forty-eight percent of parents have indicated a willingness to provide their own transportation which should give administrators the flexibility they need to make busing work.

“I am very grateful to those parents who are willing to drive their kids,” Colpitts said. “I appreciate that they are willing to sacrifice that service so that children who have no other option than school transportation will be able to take the bus under the safest conditions possible.”

Colpitts said he also recognizes the strain that committing to in-person or remote learning put Oxford Hills families under. Parents were required to register by Jul. 31. Once the registration process is complete, parents will not be able to switch their children’s statuses for the first quarter or trimester of the school year.

While that requirement seems inflexible given the unknowns, Colpitts said it is necessary in order to allocate adequate resources to each type of education.

“District wide we have to assign teachers to either one or the other [distance or in-person learning] and we have to make sure we commit our resources so that both are equitably applied,” Colpitts said. “And we will be unable to determine how in school learning can be done until parents have made their choice.”

Decisions on resources and staffing are still in flux, as more than 800 students have not been registered yet. Colpitts said the district’s secretaries are in the process of contacting the families of all pending students this week. Anecdotally, he said that about 12% of Oxford Hill Comprehensive High School students have so far registered for remote learning. If 88% of the 1,200 – 1,300 high school students opt for in-person education the district will not be able to meet the state’s maximum capacity threshold and will have to develop a hybrid model to comply with it.

One of biggest concerns of parents has been about children wearing masks. Some parents commented in SAD 17’s initial reopening survey that they would not allow their children to return to school if they had to wear a mask. Others said they would not allow them to return unless masks were required. The administration’s response is driven by Maine DOE requirements and the choice regarding masks is clear.

Students returning to school for in-person education must wear facial coverings. Educators will be able to provide “mask breaks,” longer recesses and make adjustments between the six and three feet mandate (in some cases, masks will not be necessary when six-foot social distancing can be managed). But no person – student, educator or visitor – will be allowed to enter school property without a facial covering.

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