RSU 16 school board Monday endorsed a hybrid plan for students to return to class starting on Aug. 31. Screenshot from video

POLAND — Students in RSU 16 will be heading back to school on Aug. 31 under a hybrid plan that will put most in the classroom two days a week.

Assistant Superintendent Amy Hediger called the plan a “slow roll in” towards a time when schools can resume normal operations again.

The three-town district shuttered its school buildings last March as the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading, shifting to remote-only learning on an emergency basis with little warning.

Ever since, educators have been working on a variety of alternatives for this fall, including Remote 2.0 in case students could not return in person. But they urged the school board to adopt a mixed plan that allows most students to return for two days a week with active online learning the remaining days.

It’s what 85% of the district’s parents indicated they wanted in a survey released Monday. About the same percentage of teachers backed the plan, according to both the district and their union.

During a Zoom session on Monday, the school board endorsed the hybrid plan with nine members voting for it and four in opposition: Ed Rabasco, Mike Downing, Travis Ritchie and Arleena Stotts. They wanted to give parents the opportunity to choose remote learning instead.

The hybrid plan backed by the board allows for virtual learning for about 140 students with health issues that put them at risk, but not necessarily those whose families are simply concerned about sending their children into an uncertain public health situation in the classroom.

The district said families can choose home schooling for any students if they want, but they would not be able to tap the district for regular assistance if they opt to follow that route.

Hediger said there simply aren’t enough teachers to allocate more of them to remote learning.

The hybrid plan will divide students into two cohorts so half attend class in their schools on Mondays and Tuesdays while the other half go on Thursdays and Fridays. Educators said the in-person days would be dedicated to “new learning” while the rest of the week, which would include mandatory work, would focus on practicing new skills and preparing for the next lessons.

Nobody argued it’s an ideal situation. They said it’s a way of getting as much of the advantage of classroom education as possible while maintaining public health guidelines to keep students safe.

Everyone in the schools will be required to wear masks at all times except for occasional “mask breaks” when appropriate, Superintendent Kenneth Healey said. He called “mask fatigue” his biggest fear.

Dr. Nathan Raby, who practices in Poland and serves as the district’s medical advisor, told the board nobody asked him to provide an opinion on the safety of the reopening plan. He said it may want to consider whether the district needs an advisor if it’s not even going to seek his help during a pandemic.

Raby said he agreed with his wife, Jennie Raby, who told the board she is concerned about in-person classes and wants the district to offer virtual learning options for everyone who wants them.

“We need to allow people to keep their kids safe,” said Mary-Beth Taylor, the chair of Poland’s Select Board.

Healy said that the district’s plan will work.

“We’re trying to bring our students back in a safe, methodical way,” Healey said.

Hediger said the health of students is the top priority.

The hybrid plan doesn’t include the livestreaming of any classroom instruction, an idea discarded because it would violate students’ privacy, and doesn’t include Zoom sessions on the days when students are not in the building, with some exceptions.

One motivation behind the plan, officials said, is to make sure teachers can handle the workload and stress of operating in a new, difficult environment.

“We really want to avoid teacher burnout,” Hediger said.

Ritchie said he is worried the potentially deadly virus will prove a greater problem than the plan can cope with. It thrives, he said, in enclosed places such as classrooms.

He said, too, that he’s concerned that too many people in Poland, Mechanic Falls and Minot are failing to wear masks when they’re out and about. Some are vehemently opposed to wearing face coverings, he said, and some of them have children.

“These are some of the parents of the children we’re going to be dealing with,” board member Norm Davis said.

Stotts called the mask issue “wholly divisive” and told administrators to focus on getting students to wear them as required but not to drag their parents into it. She said parents understand there are things they have to do to get children ready for school, whether they like the rules or not.

Still, Ritchie said, he’s impressed with the work put in by RSU 16 administrators and teachers who are navigating new terrain as they try to figure out the best course.

“Sure things are in short supply these days,” Ritchie said.

The one board member with the most personal stake in the decision, Amy Fryda, a student representative who attends Poland Regional High School, did not get a vote that counted in the final tally.

But Mary Martin, the school board chair, asked her if she supported the hybrid plan,

“Yes, absolutely,” Fryda loudly proclaimed.

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