Teachers unions in Maine say they’ve generally felt respected and listened to as schools pull together their fall plans — and fall contingency plans — for education in the age of COVID-19.

But with so many of those plans still up in the air and the new school year rapidly approaching, some also worry that safety could be compromised in the rush to move forward.

“At least we’ve been at the table, which I know is better off than many of the situations down South,” said Dennis Boyd, choir director for the Oxford Hills middle and high schools and chief negotiator for the school system’s union. “But we are three weeks out and we have some big questions to answer right now.”

For teachers struggling to prepare for a new school year, figure out how to teach during a pandemic and keep themselves, their families and their students safe, it’s a stressful time.

“Teachers are terrified right now,” Boyd said. “But at the same time, we’re trying to figure out how to make it work.”

In Maine, school systems each have their own teachers unions, typically representing teachers, teaching assistants and other education professionals. The Maine Education Association is the overarching, statewide union, with about 24,000 members. Not all public school teachers in Maine are part of a union, but most are.

Grace Leavitt, president of the MEA, said the unions have one priority right now: safety.

“For students, for educators and for our communities,” she said.

In many school systems, unions or union members have been involved in discussions about the new school year. Teachers have been part of planning committees or have worked with school leaders on policies and strategies for education during COVID-19.

“I would say in many places, in most places, they do. So that’s great,” Leavitt said. “In some places, it’s been problematic.”

In those places, she said, “Maybe rather than being part of developing the plan, maybe they’ve been handed a plan to react to.”

“Where (collaboration) has happened, things seem to be going smoothly. Where it has not, we’ll just keep kind of working at it, so we can be sure all bases are covered,” she said.

But even when teachers have been part of planning, there remain hurdles: transportation, ventilation, social distancing in classrooms, getting and keeping a large enough supply of personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies. How does a school get all the nurses, bus drivers and substitutes they’ll need when those workers were already in short supply pre-pandemic? How does a school find space for basic everyday activities, like lunch?

“It’s really complex … trying to be sure they’re foreseeing everything that needs to be foreseen and planned, and being ready for it,”  Leavitt said.

Earlier this week, the Lewiston Education Association publicly objected to a Lewiston school system proposal to hold classes both in person and online this fall. Union President Allison Lytton said Thursday that school leaders have been “respectful and responsive” and “receptive to our feedback” for months as the school system has worked on ways to safely educate students. But a lot of important questions remain unanswered, particularly about in-person instruction, she said.

Allison Lytton, Lewiston Education Association president, in front of Connors Elementary School in Lewiston on Thursday afternoon. Earlier this week, the Lewiston Education Association publicly objected to a Lewiston school system proposal to hold classes both in person and online this fall. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

There are just two weeks left until staff members return and three weeks until classes start.

“How late do we push it? We’re nearing a start date when we need to be confident that we can have kids safely with us,” said Lytton, who works for the school system as a family engagement coordinator based at Connors Elementary School. “A few of us are super optimistic that everything will just work out, and that’s a subgroup of people. But with that said, I would say a strong majority of us have very real concerns.”

Those concerns include the enforcement of social distancing and mask-wearing, a lack of pandemic-related procedures and protocols, the logistics of transporting thousands of students and sanitizing hundreds of classrooms, and a heavy workload for staff. The union is also concerned about the availability of basic supplies, such as hand sanitizer.

“There’s a lot of moving parts and pieces to this. I don’t envy any decision maker in this process because we’re in a global pandemic and we’re trying to say, ‘Everything’s fine. We’re going to do our best and get back to normal,'” Lytton said. “But it’s not normal. This isn’t normal. It also won’t last forever and we acknowledge that, but how hard do we want to make something work that has a great likelihood of injuring somebody?”

Some teachers are so worried about starting school that they have inquired about early retirement, a leave of absence or family leave, Lytton said.

The union wants Lewiston to start its school year with all-virtual education, then start in-person classes when all questions have been answered and everyone feels ready.

“Maine is in a pretty good spot as far as the worst of things,” Lytton said. “It’s like we have a small hole in our boat. There’s the Titanic in other places. Georgia is pretty much sinking. We’re hanging in there, but there’s a lot of bailing that needs to be done to keep up.”

The School Committee is expected to vote Monday on a plan for this new school year.

In the Oxford Hills region, Boyd said SAD 17 brought his teachers union into discussions early, seeking collaboration as school leaders worked since spring to come up with a plan for the new school year. It’s helped to have that input.

“Right now we are still at the let’s-try-to-figure-this-out phase. We’re at the table, which is a nice place to be,” he said. “We want to do right by kids, but we also want to do right by teachers. We want everyone to be safe.”

But plans have been fluid, often by necessity.

“We’ve been talking about what to do knowing the target is continuing to move every 10 seconds. Of all the plans I’ve heard, most of them have changed three or four times,” Boyd said.

Currently, the school system is planning a hybrid model, with a mix of in-person and virtual learning. Questions still remain and school is slated to start in three weeks.

“There’s a significant amount of anxiety right now. Things we took for granted before, you just can’t anymore,” Boyd said. “Child care first thing in the morning — if teachers need to report earlier, who’s going to watch my kids? Or my kid used (to) come over to my school after they were done their school and now they can’t because at 2 p.m. we’re talking about locking down the building for cleaning. There’s just a lot of unknowns.”

Added to that unknown: The future of the virus. Even if plans call for classes to start in person now, they could end up fully virtual this winter.

“I’m going into school mentally preparing for that eventually,” Boyd said. “I hope I’m wrong. I really hope I’m wrong.”

In the meantime, he said, he and his colleagues are working as hard and as fast as they can to gear up for a new school year that will be more different than any they’ve ever experienced.

“I see a lot of anti-teacher rhetoric on Facebook. They say, ‘Oh, well, they don’t want to go to school because they’re lazy.’ No, not lazy. We’re terrified for our lives. We’re terrified for our students’ lives. We know that Johnny had cancer two years ago and we know that Susie’s mom is currently battling breast cancer. We don’t want to send something home that’s going to affect our families, our communities. We’re trying to figure it out.”


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