Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School students in Paris return to the building after a mask break between classes. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

As schools throughout Maine abruptly close their doors and pivot from in-person to hybrid to fully remote learning according to how COVID-19 cases wax and wane, consistency and engagement for students becomes difficult to maintain.

In SAD 17, which includes Hebron, West Paris, Paris, Norway, Oxford, Otisfield, Harrison and Waterford, most of its student absences are tied to COVID-19 attendance policies and restrictions.

“Overall our attendance is not far off from previous years,” Hebron Station School Principal D.J. Thorne said in an email exchange. “So far this year it is 96.3%. Last year our attendance rate, through March (when we had to close), was 97.4%. I don’t think we have more kids out than we had last year but with the new protocols; students are required to be out for longer stretches of time if they are not feeling well or in quarantine.”

Chronic absence is defined as a student missing 10% or more school days, regardless of the reason. Even with strict health monitoring and two-week quarantines taking students out for longer than usual periods of time, Thorne said chronic absence has not been a major issue.

“Last year through March, we had eight students who fell into the category of chronically absent,” Thorne explained. “This year through Nov.15, we have nine students who fall into the category of chronically absent.

“And we do not currently have any cases of truancy. The district does have a policy and procedures that all schools follow. The person responsible for truancy follow up can be determined at the building level.  At Hebron Station School, I would be handling truancy follow-up.”

Thorne added that there has been an increase in homeschooling requests. In previous years it was unusual for Hebron Station School to receive such a request, but for the 2020-21 academic year are several who opted for it.

“When we first offered a remote option to families we knew we also would offer an opportunity to return to in-person learning at the trimester break,” Thorne said. “With the potential for students to be transitioning between remote and in-person we have taken steps to ensure continuity and that the same standards are being taught here and remotely.”

For some curriculum subjects, SAD 17 has purchased virtual lessons to which in-person teachers and remote teachers have access. Remote and in-person teachers meet, once a month, by grade levels. Those meetings are districtwide.

“Someone once asked me what I thought was the biggest challenge facing education,” Thorne said.  “Engagement is one of the biggest challenges today. Whether it is in-person or remote, the engagement is going to depend on the student and the teacher.

“We have some remote students super engaged, just like in-person students. But we also have some remote students who struggle with it, just like some who are in the classroom. The difference is, I think we have more opportunities to try to engage students when they are with us at school.”

Thorne believes that most students were ready to come back this fall, and the teachers wanted to teach them in person.

“Overall, students have done an incredible job of adapting to all the protocols and procedures we have in place,” Thorne said. “And parents have been extremely responsible and call if they have any questions about whether to send their kids or keep them home.”

Agnes Gray Elementary School in West Paris. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

At Agnes Gray Elementary School in West Paris, Principal Beth Clarke said student absences are down this year over last year for September through November. In 2019, 106 students had missed one or more days of school; this year to date there have been 73. The number of students considered chronically absent – missing 10% or more of school time – is up.

“Last year we had 10% out more than 90% of the time from beginning of school to the first week of November,” Clarke said. “This year it is 20%. It is driven by the fact that students with symptoms have to get a doctor’s clearance to come back. Typically, this means students are out at least 10 days when they exhibit any COVID symptoms.”

Clarke said her school has dealt with only one student who could be called truant, and it is one in a remote learning pod. She has requested the student shift to in-school learning for the next trimester and the family has agreed to that.

“Other than this specific case, anyone who has been out for an extended time is required to do so in order to quarantine for at least a 10-day period,” she said.

Clarke echoed her colleague Thorne about students happy to return to school in September for the first time since March.

“Our in-person kiddos are happy to be with us and remain engaged,” Clarke said. “They spend a lot of time learning in the orchard and forest classrooms. We established a woods playground for more recess space.

“We also hold Forest Fridays with Seal Rossignol from the Center for an Ecology-Based Economy. During these sessions, classroom teachers take Seal’s lead in developing more experiential, nature-based lessons that connect with our social studies and science standards. And the cases of student misbehavers have decreased!”

In SAD 44 in Bethel, in-person or remote learning all five days of the week has proven effective, according to principals. All SAD 44 students follow a five days-a-week attendance policy.

The district, which includes Bethel, Greenwood, Newry and Woodstock, has added technological resources to help students in remote learning stay engaged. Laptops are equipped with “meeting owls,” videoconferencing cameras that shift focus to whoever is speaking so they can see who they are listening to.

The owl technology helps mimic an in-class setup for students at home, which is about 20% of the overall student body.

Mark Kenney, principal for Telstar Middle and High schools in Bethel, said remote learners struggle more than most in-person students, but he believes the technological resources have been highly beneficial for students who have opted to work from home.

“Doing the synchronous schedule has made all the difference in the world. Students’ schedules stay the same. They follow the same time frames,” Kenney said. “We are not seeing the tanking and the bottoming out that other schools around us are having happen. I think a big part of that is having students in class five days a week, instead of two or three days a week.

“The biggest challenge for remote students has been showing up on time. When it comes to attendance, our remote learners have struggled the most.” Kenney added. “They haven’t been consistent when it’s come to showing up to classes every single day. They do a lot of picking and choosing when it comes to attending classes. We have had to do some tracking down.”

Generally, though, Kenney said attendance rates have been better than a normal school year.

Many of the students who struggled last spring when schools closed are the same ones who still have difficulties now, according to Kenney. He said upperclassmen, especially the senior class, make up far more of the remote learning group than first and second-year students.

SAD 44 has rules in place that remote students must adhere to. When attending class, they must have their cameras on. They have to be dressed in school-appropriate clothing (no pajamas) and must be sitting in a room (they cannot Zoom from their bed).

Master Sgt. Nathan Williams, left, Staff Sgt. Austin Plourd, center, and Sgt. Ethan Blake of Maine Army National Guard secure one of the three tents for use by Foster Career and Technical Education Center forestry and wood harvesting program in Farmington. Pam Harnden/Livermore Falls Advertiser

Woodstock Elementary Principal Jessica Wilkey, who only has nine out of her more than 60 students working from home, said remote learning has gone well for most students.

“I think there are a few students who have difficulties with the format because it’s just a different learning style,” Wilkey said. “The teachers are putting in so much effort. They are trying to keep remote learners up to date as much as possible.”

Wilkey said most of her remote students have been good about making it to virtual classes on time, but a few have needed reminders that it is still part of their attendance policy. With regard to internet accessibility, Wilkey said most students have not had issues with connectivity and the few that are having troubles have been offered hot spots.

“We definitely have solutions to tech problems that are readily handy,” Wilkey said.

At Crescent Park School in Bethel about 15% of students are learning from home, with the majority of remote students coming from grades three through five. Principal Tanya Arsenault said younger students work in a different set-up if they are going remote.

“For kindergarten through grade two, remote students have their own separate time to connect with teachers,” she said. “At the K-2 level you can’t expect those kids to jump onto a Zoom with in-person students and learn that way.”

In Franklin County, Regional School Unit 9 is facing truancy rates that are five times higher than last year, Superintendent Tina Meserve said. Chesterville, Farmington, Industry, New Sharon, New Vineyard, Starks, Temple, Weld, Wilton and Vienna make up the Mount Blue school district.

“We currently have 21 students who are truant and the principals/teachers are working with families to address the problem,” Meserve said in an email Nov. 12. “Last year at this time there were only four students truant.

“Truancy laws require schools to meet with parents/students to make a plan when a student is truant. If the parent/student doesn’t attend we still must hold the meeting and make a plan,” Meserve said.

Once all efforts to resolve the problem have been exhausted, the district is required to make a referral to either the Department of Health and Human Services or the local police department. At this point, Meserve informs the school board of the reported truant student as well.

RSU 9 has also formed a dropout prevention committee, which may develop policies and support resources that could curb truancy rates.

“We are also starting conversations about how to get more students back to school safely,” Meserve said. “Current increases in COVID-19 may limit that somewhat but we are working on the next steps for those who need more support.”

Meserve came under criticism in September for allowing students of select staff members to attend school five days a week due to child care issues. At the Oct. 13 board of directors meeting, Meserve said the district would be seeking funding and additional options to offer parents child care options if the hybrid model is posing an economic hardship.

The board has yet to report any plan or funding to provide families with child care support on remote-learning days.

The hybrid model clearly poses challenges, with remote learning day absence rates at 6.2% compared to in-person learning day absence rates at 5.1%.

“Our attendance rates have been impacted by COVID,” Meserve said. “Last year we had 10.86% of students chronically absent at this point. This year the number is 19.06%.”

Tamara “Tammy” Lindsey, an art teacher at Spruce Mountain Elementary School in Jay, has created an outdoor classroom to use with her students this year. Pam Harnden/Livermore Falls Advertiser

Down the road in RSU 73, which includes Jay, Livermore and Livermore Falls, truancy is also a concern. For most Spruce Mountain schools truancy is more of an issue this year than last year.

According to figures provided in an email from Superintendent Scott Albert, truancy at the primary school (prekindergarten through grade 2) was 7% last year and is almost 23.7% this year, an increase of almost 16.7%. At the elementary school, truancy is 16% this year compared to 17% last year, a decrease of 1%.

“First-graders seem to be out more at the primary school,” Albert said. “Fourth-graders seem to be out more at the elementary school.”

Truancy figures from last year are not available for the middle school. This year the rate is 22%. The middle school has a new principal this year.

“Seventh-graders seem to be out more at the middle school,” Albert wrote.

At the high school, truancy was 2.5% last year and 17.9% this year.

“Freshmen and sophomores seem to be out more at the high school,” he wrote.

Each school is different on whether more kids are truant on hybrid days or remote days, Albert wrote.

“Teachers and staff are constantly reaching out to families to encourage attendance using phone calls, emails, google meets, Remind app,” he said.

School resource officer Darin Gilbert and administrators have made home visits to students with attendance issues, Albert wrote.

At Spruce Mountain Primary, elementary and middle schools attendance has been separated from academic achievement, he noted. At the high school there is an appeals process that allows parents and students to request leniency for truancy, Albert added.

“Many things are still up in the air at the state level when discussing attendance as well as funding and what will affect funding next year,” he wrote.


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