Sixth-grader Spencer Franks, 12, chats Tuesday with Principal Ryan McKenney outside Philip W. Sugg Middle School in Lisbon Falls. Franks and his classmates were outside during a five-minute break. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LISBON — When walking into the Philip W. Sugg Middle School, a thermal imaging camera points at anyone and everyone who enters.

“You can’t go into a Lisbon school without having your temperature taken,” said Superintendent Rick Green. If someone has a temperature, an alarm goes off.

His district installed systems to check temperatures at all schools. “We redid all the HVAC ventilation,” Green said. “Safety goes beyond all the stickers on the floor.” 

Going to school during a pandemic is different.

Across Maine some schools are doing hybrid learning with in-person learning two days a week, others more.

Since September, Lisbon schools have had in-person learning five days a week, the exception being December and January when cases in Androscoggin County were higher.

On March 29, Lisbon High School went from four to five in-person learning days a week; lower grades returned to five days in February.

COVID-19 cases in Lisbon schools have been minimal, Green said.

At the middle school, which has a student population of 260, this academic year cases have been in the single digits, the last one in January, said Principal Ryan McKenney.

McKenney offered a tour (when no students were present) to show what school is like these days.

Like all public buildings, to enter everyone must wear a mask covering their nose and mouth.

As soon as students and adults walk in — socially distanced, of course — everyone’s temperature is taken through the thermal imaging camera mounted on the wall. The system immediately alerts staff if anyone has a temperature of 103 or higher.

There are footprints taped on the floor guiding where to stand to maintain social distance. At this school the footprints are paw prints, paying homage to Lisbon schools’ mascot, the greyhound, a bit of COVID-styled school spirit.

Sanitizing stations are everywhere.

There’s no drinking from water fountains. Students get water by refilling water bottles.

Each student has a yoga mat teachers use to take classes outside when the weather permits.

The cafeteria is half empty, tables have been removed so that no more than 50 students can eat lunch at a time, 6 feet apart. One class eats lunch in the library, which now hosts rows of taped-off chairs and desks.

McKenney played a surveillance video of lunchtime showing students walking into the cafeteria, 3 feet apart, all wearing masks. Because students are wearing masks and standing apart, there’s no joking, no talking.

Philip W. Sugg Middle School students chat Tuesday outside the Lisbon Falls school. The students were outside during a five-minute break. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Every day, students sit in the same chair at lunch. Every day, they eat with the same group of students.

Pandemic lunch protocols cut back on socializing but enhance safety, McKenney said. Knowing exactly who sat where on what day makes contact tracing quicker in case anyone is exposed to someone who has COVID.

In classrooms, desks are surrounded by more tape on the floor. Student chairs are 4 feet apart.

“Each kid sits in that seat the whole day for the most part,” McKenney said. In a normal year students change classes.

“But not now. We can’t do that,” McKenney said. Instead teachers move from class to class. Their supplies are in a cart ready to roll.

For students, one of the biggest pandemic changes is that they’re with the same group of students all the time. “There are benefits and drawbacks to that,” McKenney said.

“Everything we’ve done is to minimize socialization.” That’s tough for students, especially middle school students, an age when youth are emotionally pulling away from parents and friends become more important. “And now they have to sit 4 feet away. When they eat lunch, further away,” McKenney said. “They can’t talk in hallways. It’s to keep kids safe.”

Echoing other Maine educators, McKenney said students are overall doing well considering the year; his sixth, seventh and eighth graders are following safety rules.

“Walking down the hallway it’s natural now for them to be spaced out. It’s so much more natural than it was in September.”

While some adults have protested mask mandates claiming it is an infringement on their liberty, compliance is not a problem with students, educators in Lisbon and other districts say.

Like all schools in Maine, last spring schools were closed. All students stayed home doing remote learning.

In September, when in-person learning resumed, whether kids would wear masks all day “was a huge concern,” McKenney said. His school and others implemented zero-tolerance rules, and explained to students it was to keep everyone safe from getting COVID.

If a student refused to wear a mask they would be sent home.

“The kids understand,” McKenney said. “They’ve experienced being out of school. They want to be here.”

Parents and families back the mask mandate, McKenney said. “When there’s community buy-in, there’s no space for kids to refuse. The community’s buy-in has been amazing.”

As has the staff, he said.

When in-person learning resumed, anxious teachers and school workers walked in, not sure what to expect. “They saw sanitation stations, classrooms taped out,” McKenney said. “They walked through thermal imaging cameras. We told them, ‘It’s going to be OK. We’ve got a plan for everything.’” 

A big fear was how much learning loss students would suffer through remote learning and protocols that discourage socialization.

So far the situation is far from perfect but students are faring better than expected.

There has been some learning loss, McKenney said, “but that loss was not to such a degree we could not make it up.”


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