FARMINGTON — On Tuesday night, August 4, Superintendent Tina Meserve presented to the Regional School Unit 9 board of directors and over 130 Zoom participants proposed models for returning students to school Aug. 31.

The models included a hybrid plan that would combine in-person instruction with remote learning and a full-return model. 

Regional School Unit 9 Superintendent Meserve presented the district committee’s recommendations for return to school models. A full-return model is recommended for prekindergarten through eighth grade while a hybrid model is recommended for Mt. Blue High School. Screenshot

The option for remote learning would be available to families who are uncomfortable with sending their children back to school. 

“We would like to offer a remote-learning option to any family that chooses it,” Meserve said at the videoconferencing via Zoom meeting. “We don’t want to force families to send their child back to school if they don’t feel comfortable with the plan that we have in place, or if they just don’t feel comfortable with children being around other students and staff.”

If families choose the remote-learning option, they must commit to that model for a full academic quarter to avoid classroom disruptions, according to Meserve, who also said the district would revert to a fully remote model if an outbreak of coronavirus were to occur.

The full-return model is only a possibility for prekindergarten through eighth grade. Mt. Blue High School does not have the space capacity for its entire student body and staff to be present and practice the social-distancing guidelines issued by the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention and the state Department of Education.

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The full-return model requires all students wear masks and maintain a distance of 3 feet from their peers and 6 feet from teachers. All staff would be required to wear face coverings.

“The CDC recommendation for schools is 3 feet,” Meserve said, “and that is with the understanding that everybody has a mask on.”

Parents would be responsible for screening their children for coronavirus symptoms prior to each school day. At this point, the state DOE has not secured COVID-19 tests for public schools.  

“If we had that 15-20 minute test and there was access for schools to get some of that, that would be ideal,” Meserve said.

In a follow up phone interview, Meserve said that she had contacted the Regional Superintendent’s Association to ask the commissioner if any COVID-19 tests had been acquired for schools to use on site. 

“The response I got was that it is not something that they are considering doing and part of it was availability. But part of it was the cost of doing that as well and that while the testing would show if somebody has the coronavirus at the time of the testing, it would really be a false sense of security because you can test negative in the morning, but have coronavirus by the afternoon,” Meserve said.

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“The Department of Education essentially was saying that spending our time and efforts on ensuring that social distancing, that face masks and the hygiene was what was really going to ensure we’re not spreading the virus,” she said.

An isolation room will be designated at every school for students displaying symptoms. Depending on a student’s symptoms, they may need to receive a negative COVID-19 test from their health care provider before being allowed back in school. 

For the full-return model, there would be staggered drop-off and pickup times with buses arriving 30 minutes later than all other students. Both the hybrid and full-return models include a nightly deep clean of all schools. 

RSU 9 Curriculum Coordinator Laura Columbia described the school’s precautionary measures as a “Swiss cheese model.”

“Our department coordinator nurse gave us this great analogy that we’re going to use with kids, the Swiss cheese model. So we have our screenings. That’s one thing, but you can still get in with holes, right?” Columbia said. 

“You have our masks, that’s another layer. We have the 3 feet, that’s another layer. We have the cleaning, another layer. So even though some of these layers can get things in, the more layers we have and our safety precautions, the less likely we’re going to be spreading it,” she said.

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The hybrid model allows for 50% of students to be at schools at the same time, and includes two days of in-person learning and three days of remote learning.

Curriculum Coordinator Laura Columbia explained the hybrid model, which organizes students into two cohorts based on their last name. Each cohort would attend in person classes for two days and attend remote classes for three days. Screenshot

Students would be organized into one of two cohorts, based on their last name. These two groups would have designated in-person instruction days, with Fridays being remote-learning days for everyone.

There may be exceptions to these models for students with special needs and those at the Foster Career and Technical Education Center who need in-person instruction. The district is still developing models for programs that demand more-individualized instruction.

“Some of our students are in programs that require them to be present to actually access an education,” Meserve said. “For those students, we are talking about a full return.”

Through the CARES Act and other federal funding, RSU 9 has received $2.8 million to help aid with the reopening process, hire temporary staff and buy personal protective equipment, or PPE. The district has already acquired masks and face shields for every student and staff member.

“I also thought that it would be helpful for people to know that while we have this money to provide PPE and other safety resources, the state is also acquiring safety material for the school department,” Meserve said.

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“So they’ve ordered face masks and face shields and gowns and gloves, and they have a lot of their resources already in the warehouse, we just have to have them delivered. We are looking pretty good in that area,” she said.

Some of this funding will also go towards purchasing hot spots and computers to ensure every student has access to their education during remote learning. Some additional planning is needed for areas where hot spots may not function such as in the town of Weld which has no cell phone tower.

A community forum via Zoom was held Thursday, August 6, for residents to ask questions and provide feedback to the proposed models.

The board is expected to decide which model schools will follow at its next Zoom meeting, set for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, August 11. The link to the meeting is available on the district’s website, www.mtbluersd.org. The board will also have the opportunity at this meeting to implement more precautions into these models after receiving feedback from the community forum.

In other matters, the RSU 9 board voted to have the district join a class-action lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies that are alleged to have contributed to the nation’s opioid epidemic.

Litigation will most likely last two to three years, at no cost to the district, according to officials.

The board also approved revisions to school trip and graduation policies.

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