Teacher Paula Rousseau works in her Sherwood Heights classroom in Auburn on Friday. The room needs to be rearranged to accommodate individual student desks all facing the same direction, instead of the group tables Rousseau has used in the past. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — Even after more than 30 years of teaching, Paula Rousseau isn’t quite sure how to start planning for the upcoming school year.

Normally, she begins developing a plan of study in early August for her students at Sherwood Heights Elementary School. Rousseau creates lesson plans based on the core curriculum, paying special attention to the learning targets students are expected to reach.

This year will be particularly challenging, she said. Many of her third-grade students will start the year without having mastered fundamentals usually taught in the final months of the second grade.

Rousseau anticipates adding a great deal of pre-education material to her lessons this fall. She wants to be positive her students have grasped the basics before pushing them to take on the more rigorous third-grade course work.

However, while Rousseau firmly understands what she needs to teach, she is unsure how to begin planning lessons without knowing whether she will be instructing in person, remotely or by some combination of the two.

This sentiment is shared by other Lewiston-Auburn teachers trying to prepare for a school year that promises to be unlike any other.

As the start of the academic year rapidly approaches, school districts are scrambling to design the best mode of education for their communities, juggling public health concerns with the desire to bring students back to school.

For instance, after almost four hours of deliberation Wednesday night, the Auburn School Committee voted to give parents maximum flexibility, allowing them to choose from three options — ranging from totally remote learning to four days of in-person education — to best fit their personal needs. Yet, the specifics of the plan remain unclear.

Auburn recently distributed a survey to parents asking them to pick their preferred mode of education. Rousseau said she would personally rather be with her students for four days if possible.

“I just need to know the expectations and I’ll jump in with my whole being to do what’s the most important ‒ teach my students,” Rousseau said.

The Lewiston School Committee will vote this Monday on a proposed hybrid plan that would allow most students to attend classes in person two days a week with three days of remote learning, or elect to take classes completely online.

However, it is uncertain whether this proposal will pass. Lewiston’s teacher union released a statement Thursday outlining numerous objections to the proposal, and at least one of the nine School Committee members has already stated they would vote against the plan, citing concerns for the “health and safety of our students, staff, families and community.”

Without knowing how schools will reopen, some teachers are preparing education material that can be taught both in person and online.

Candace Minkowsky stands outside of the Farwell School in Lewiston, where she teaches, on Friday with a bag full of school supplies she has purchased for the school year. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Candace Minkowsky is a resource room special education teacher at Farwell Elementary School in Lewiston. She usually has about 30 students in grades four through six who visit her classroom for a couple hours each day to receive specialized education in core subjects like reading, math and writing.

She said she is trying to plan her curriculum as normal, but is keeping an eye out for lessons and assignments that can be adapted for in-person and online learning.

However, this is challenging for students with special education needs, she said. Each of her students has an individual education plan (IEP), outlining goals created to meet their particular learning needs.

“With an IEP, we’re obligated to provide (students) specially designed instruction, and no one knows what that looks like doing remote learning,” Minkowsky said. “One-on-one, direct, hands-on time with those kids  ‒ that’s my biggest struggle. How do I replicate that same experience and opportunity for them on a computer?”

Normally, her students transition in and out of her classroom multiple times during the day, spending most of their time in general education classrooms. Some have the support of a full-time educational technician.

Minkowsky said she doesn’t know which mode of study would be best for her students. In the spring, remote learning gave her the opportunity to differentiate her lessons more easily, meeting with smaller groups of students at similar academic levels.

However, consistent, in-person education is critical to her students’ development, she said, noting that an irregular schedule would be particularly challenging. “I have so many kids where their regression happens just over the weekend.”

Minkowsky’s biggest concern is making sure all of her students have access to the internet and a computer. Lewiston is almost guaranteed to begin the year with some component of virtual education. The only way for this to be successful is to be sure every student has full access, she said.

“If we go back to school, it won’t be normal ‒ far from it. I worry that it could be traumatic for them. For a lot of my kids, school is a very safe place. My fear is that it will be a scary place, and I don’t want it to be like that for them. There’s just so much unknown.”

Jon Berry, a high school math teacher at Edward Little in Auburn, is currently scheduled to teach four different levels of math this year, including algebra and precalculus. He said he needs more information before doing most of his class-specific planning.

Previously, the Auburn School Department proposed a hybrid plan that would bring most students to school two days a week, with remote learning planned for the other three. Now, this is one of three options available for families to choose from.

In this scenario, Berry said he would likely implement a “flipped” classroom, creating video lessons to introduce students to new topics and using in-person and synchronous learning time to explore, reinforce and answer questions about the material.

He admits that students would need to assume a great deal of responsibility to make this method work. While a number of students thrived during the period of independent learning in the spring and moved beyond the expected coursework, other students rarely attended video meetings and completed few assignments, he said.

Students will likely need to adapt to varied learning styles this year, he said.

“I believe that asynchronous learning (learning the same material at different times and locations) . . . should be seen as a tool that can benefit multiple learning styles,” he said. “Students can pause, rewind, fast forward, and/or replay the same teacher presentation that would have been performed at the whiteboard in front of them traditionally.”

However, he acknowledged that this won’t be necessary if most students choose to return to school four days a week. Berry is waiting to learn how he will be expected to teach this year before finalizing his lesson plans.

Berry, along with Rousseau and Minkowsky, plan to utilize Google Classroom to facilitate online learning, when necessary. This platform allows educators to post lessons and activities for students to complete and submit online.

Rousseau said she also utilized the Remind app in the spring to inform parents about upcoming assignments. This app allowed her to send notifications via text; parents could in turn respond with questions.

Despite the uncertainty, Rousseau, Minkowsky and Berry expressed confidence that students and educators will rise to meet the challenges of the coming school year.

“One thing that our school, and particularly our math department, has excelled in is providing multiple support options for students to equip them with opportunities to succeed in class,” Berry said. “I’m confident that we’ll once again rise to that challenge.

Rousseau said that parents and educators have the ability to set the tone for the new guidelines and restrictions students will be expected to adhere to while in school.

“We just have to make it as positive as we can,” she said. “We have to make it as though it’s just another norm, because that’s what they’re seeing as it is now. It’s become a norm to have a mask, or not touch people anymore.”

People don’t give kids enough credit, Minkowsky said. Even though educators and families are stressed about returning to school, she believes the students will adapt better than people expect.

“Kids are resilient,” she said. “I think that they’re going to come back from this, no problem, especially as we keep showing our support.”

Paula Rousseau stands in her Sherwood Heights classroom in Auburn on Friday. “We just have to make it as positive as we can (for the students),” she said. “We have to make it as though it’s just another norm, because that’s what they’re seeing as it is now. It’s become a norm to have a mask, or not touch people anymore.” Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo


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