PARIS — As the Oxford Hills communities began to settle into the fall season SAD 17 educators had reason for optimism: the area had been relatively undisturbed by the public health emergency that raged through different parts of the country since first bringing Seattle, Washington to its knees and then spreading to other urban areas over the last seven months. Almost all counties in Maine, save York, were allowed to fully re-open for the school year in September. Just last week, the SAD 17 School Board approved a carefully planned fall sports season for middle and high schoolers.

But over the last six weeks COVID-19 has taken root as it spread through communities in Maine, starting at a “super-spreader” wedding in Penobscot county in August, striking 39 residents and workers at a nursing home in Somerset county and causing more outbreaks throughout York County at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, the York County Jail, and several gathering places in Sanford, including the First Baptist Calvary Church, veterans’ organizations and social clubs.

In September, an Oxford county outbreak was identified at ND Paper mill in Rumford.

By the time SAD 17 Superintendent Rick Colpitts took the call last week informing him that Governor Janet Mills had downgraded Oxford county’s status from green to yellow for school operations, an Oxford Hills youth soccer coach had tested positive for the virus, putting students from five different schools and their families at risk. The coach is recovering, but six kids who played in a weekend game earlier this month remain in quarantine.

Since Friday district administrators, staff and educators have scrambled to shift eight elementary schools and Oxford Hills Middle School from in-person education to hybrid programs that include remote learning at least three days a week. Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School started its school year with hybrid learning, but going from green to yellow will still require adjustment and innovation.

“The yellow designation mandates that we put in place ‘enhanced social distancing,'” said Colpitts on Monday evening. “We’re already doing social distancing with students of three to six feet inside with masks and six foot minimum outside the buildings without masks. But now there are limits on how many can be inside at one time. We are sorting through new schedules and figuring out how to place students in learning pods and when they can attend class.”


The students who will be most affected are in grades four through eight. New policies had not been finalized by press time, but Colpitts said children at highest risk will be given top priority for in-person learning.

“Our current plan is to continue  five-day attendance for students in Pre-K through third grade,” he said. “We know that children under 10 have the most to lose by not being in their school buildings for learning. We will also prioritize students with special needs or in special education programs for daily attendance.

“For students between fourth and eighth grade we are creating two learning pods, similar to those already in hybrid learning at the high school. Pod A will attend two days one week and three days the next. And instead of the last three months of last school year where the mission was to do no harm, students will follow lesson plans that require progress in their units.”

Other student situations that may require complete in-person learning will be assessed on a case-by-case basis. About 18% of the non-high school population in SAD 17 had already opted for full remote-learning; they should experience a lesser degree of adjustment to a district-wide hybrid policy.

An empty hall during a hybrid learning day at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

Colpitts said there will be some adjustment to how learning at the high school will be done as well.

“OHCHS teachers have found it challenging to spread themselves between two pods with rotating attendance and another group (distance-learners) through the week,” he said. “We plan to shift class attendance. Pod A (half the students) will attend in-person class on Mondays and Tuesdays, with Pod B (the other half) and distance-learners being remote. All high school students will be taught through remote learning on Wednesdays. On Thursdays and Fridays, Pod B will attend school while Pod A and distance-learners access their education remotely.”


Plans for Oxford Hills Technical School are still in discussion. OHTS students were able to attend school daily when school started. School Director Paul Bickford is consulting with the principals of OHCHS and Buckfield High School, which is in RSU 10, and the technical school’s board of directors to determine how classes will proceed.

All the classrooms at OHCHS will be empty on Wednesdays as long as Oxford county must operate with “yellow” safety standards. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

Fall sports in SAD 17 – that could be played on outdoor athletic fields – are now in limbo, after being approved to proceed by the School Board on Sept. 21. It is not yet clear if student athletes will be allowed to continue conditioning in smaller groups, as they were while waiting for the Maine Principals’ Association to issue guidelines for the season.

Local healthcare workers are concerned that many cases of COVID-19 now being identified may not be traceable to specific people, locations or events, Colpitts explained.

“I’ve been speaking with many doctors over the last several days,” he said. “They are expressing frustration that many community members are being lax about stopping the spread, ignoring social distancing guidelines and not wearing face coverings. Our schools are a reflection of the community, and when the community doesn’t comply with public health protocols the virus will spread into the schools.

“Through all this preparation and shifting, we still have to be prepared in case the DOE downgrades Oxford county to red. If that happens, all of this goes out the window and everyone will be forced to stay home.”


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