POLAND — Against the advice of the district’s medical adviser, administrators of Regional School Unit 16 are pressing ahead with a plan to have students in classrooms five days a week at each of the district’s schools.

Kenneth Healey, superintendent of RSU 16 Submitted photo

The draft plan, slated for consideration by the School Committee on Thursday, would drop a hybrid model that’s been used since the start of the school year starting on May 3 in a bid to have five weeks of daily classes for all before the academic year ends in June.

Superintendent Kenneth Healey, who promoted the idea, told parents recently there is “a desire to bring our kids back to some level of normalcy.”

Assistant Superintendent Amy Hediger called it “a very polarizing topic” in Poland, Minot and Mechanic Falls, with some eager to see students return to class every day while others worry the move might backfire.

Dr. Nathan Raby, a family practice doctor in Poland who serves as the medical adviser for RSU 16, said he is “very concerned now” with case numbers for COVID-19 spiking and spring break coming up soon. Breaks, he said, have already proven to be times when the disease is most apt to spread.

Jessica Taylor, a nurse who has worked in the district, said packing more children into classrooms each day will mean more of them are forced into 14-day quarantines if they come in contact with anyone who contracts COVID-19.

In a listening session with administrators last week, she warned, “It will shut the schools down in this happens.”

“I don’t know how we’re going to fit people safely,” said Sophie Patenaude, a senior at Poland Regional High School.

She said she’s worried that shifting from having two cohorts who use the buildings on different days to the traditional system where everyone is there at the same time might wreck any chance that seniors will be able to finish out the year in their classrooms rather than quarantined at home.

But parent Emily Rinchich of Poland said the hybrid system isn’t cutting it.

“It’s hard to see a 7-year-old slumped over a dining room table every day,” she said. “That’s not school. That’s not learning.”

“We can’t do this anymore,” Poland parent Erica Moreau said. “I’m sick of fighting with my kids. They’re not learning anything.”

Raby said officials “really need to continue” to follow advice from the state and federal Centers for  Disease Control about social distancing, masking and more. He said he has been pleasantly surprised at how well the hybrid system has worked out.

It is premature to switch to daily school for all, Raby said. “The time to strike” a new course, he said, is when schools open again in the fall.

Jessica Smith, a Minot parent, said making the change for the last five weeks of the academic year “would cause more turmoil” than it’s worth.

Mary-Beth Taylor, a member of Poland’s Board of Selectpersons, said she’s concerned about how the plan plays out for families who want to keep their children home for the remainder of the school year.

“It would be crazy to have school for May and a couple of weeks of June” for students who “are not ready to come back,” she said.

Androscoggin County as a whole has the second-highest case rate for COVID-19 in the state and nearby Oxford County is fourth, with both counties far outpacing the state average for the potentially deadly disease that began infecting Mainers last spring. As of Monday, it has killed 751 Mainers.

A Maine CDC tally of cases in public schools found there were only four public schools in the state with more cases last week than the high school in Poland, which had eight. The elementary schools in Poland and Minot also had cases. The RSU 16 schools have had 40 cases since March 15, which a Monday Facebook post by the district says is “an indication of “high levels of community transmission.”

Healey made it clear in a March 11 letter to Gov. Janet Mills that he wants to see students “back full time, immediately.”

He asked her, unsuccessfully, to waive social distancing rules because there isn’t enough space in most classrooms for more than half the students. Portable classrooms aren’t a solution, he said, because they would require more instructors.

“You just can’t go to the teacher store and buy new teachers,” Healey wrote. “Right now, they are out of stock, like most other pandemic-related supplies.”

At separate listening sessions for parents and teachers last week, most voiced opposition to Healey’s proposal. More than 90% of the teachers who participated took a stand against it in a straw poll at the end of the session, according to Healey.

To cope with busing issues if all students return, the draft proposal calls for staggering school schedules so drivers can make more daily runs since they can’t have full loads while meeting public health rules. Details are being worked out.

Patenaude said given the projected hours for the high school, the schedule eyed by administrators would amount to “way less than a full day,” with students at her school regularly going home at 12:30 p.m.

The district plans to polish off a plan for a full reopening Wednesday and have the School Committee consider whether to adopt it Thursday. It meets at 6:30 p.m. via Zoom.

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