AUBURN — New definitions issued this week for contact tracing and social distancing blew up the city’s school reopening plan.

Auburn School Superintendent Connie Brown

The School Committee voted 5-2 during an emergency meeting Friday to remove the four-day in-person instruction option from its plan.

That means students can attend classes two days a week and learn at home the other three days or get fully remote instruction.

Superintendent Connie Brown told the committee that an executive order issued by Gov. Janet Mills on Wednesday included a link to a standard operating procedure for contact tracing from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It became clear to me that the model we have adopted is not feasible to comply with the SOP,” Brown said.

The SOP requires contact tracing of all people within 6 feet of an infected person wearing a mask or not.

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“When we went to a four-day model we were under a 3-foot distancing guideline,” Brown said.

She said it would not be possible for schools to trace all of the contacts of students if they were 3 feet apart.

“The way we have kids separated out, we have cohorts as large as 20,” she said. “(Maine Education Commissioner Pender Makin) is saying cohorts should be as small as possible, 10-12 kids.”

Students in prekindergarten through grade 12 will have to choose either fully remote or be placed in a two-day-per-week in-person group. One of the two groups will attend school Monday and Tuesday and the other Thursday and Friday.

Brown said special education students would still be able to attend four days a week because the classes are small.

Committee Chairwoman Karen Mathieu said she was “completely shell-shocked” by the new guideline. “Our hands are tied. I completely apologize to the families out there.”

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She added, “We have done our best as a School Committee to get these kids into school. Now this giant meteor has dropped on us.”

Committee Vice Chairman Dave Simpson called the new guideline “incredibly disrespectful. To get this news on Aug. 28 will put a lot of families in whirlwinds.”

He asked whether there would be consequences if the district did not comply.

Brown said the Maine DOE could pull state subsidy.

Committee member Brian Carrier, the City Council representative to the School Committee, said he would ask the mayor to shut down parks and suggested that the district cancel sports.

“If we are not contact tracing, as far as I’m concerned, I don’t think we should have sports,” he said.

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He said he drove by “the gully” this week and saw 100-150 kids playing there.

“There’s no way we can contact trace in a situation like that,” he said.

Carrier and committee member Brian Belknap voted against the motion to drop the four-day model. Belknap said he doubted the district’s youngest pupils would be able to learn much from home three days a week.

Member Faith Fontaine voted for the motion but added that she believed she didn’t have a choice.

She said she was disappointed in the timing of the guideline.

“Administrators have been scrambling to make this work,” she said. “Now we don’t know who will take care of the children. It’s the last minute and now we’re in an uproar again. This is very hard for everyone.”

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Auburn schools are set to open Sept. 14.

Mathieu said she was receiving many live chats during the Zoom meeting from people concerned about child care.

Assistant Superintendent Michelle McClellan said the district is working with day care providers who will support remote learning during the day.

She said the Auburn Recreation Department offers “very affordable” child care options and that the YMCA and the Boys and Girls Club may be able to provide similar offers.

One viewer of the meeting chatted that she works full time and has four children.

“I don’t know what to do,” she wrote.

Less than an hour after the School Committee meeting ended, Mayor Jason Levesque announced a special meeting of the City Council on Tuesday, Sept. 1.

He asked that Brown and Mathieu attend to “explain to us the rationale for the decision and how the city can coordinate its actions appropriately.”


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