The Maine Department of Education plans to lift all physical distancing requirements this fall in a move the state said it hopes will allow schools to return to full in-person learning.

The department is continuing to encourage schools to participate in its free pooled testing program to protect students for whom a COVID-19 vaccine has not yet been authorized and to minimize disruptions from quarantines. But participation in the testing program will not be tied to the easing of the distancing requirements as was previously the case.

“Classroom instruction is critical for the social and mental development of our kids,” Gov. Janet Mills said in a news release. “School administrators and teachers have worked hard all year to protect their students from the virus, provide them with a good education, and meet many of their other needs. With the progress we’ve made in vaccinating Maine people, we want to make sure that there are no barriers to getting our kids back into the classroom full-time.” 

Superintendents around Maine have said physical distancing has been one of the biggest barriers to a full reopening of schools, and some have been planning to continue 3 feet of spacing in classrooms and 6 feet at meals this fall.

“My sense is this will be a relief to school districts,” said Steve Bailey, executive director of the Maine School Management Association and Maine School Boards Association. “On the other hand, many have been anticipating they would still have to have some distancing, so some have been making plans to need to have that distancing that they may not need.

“They will be very happy to have those distance requirements relieved in classrooms and also lunchrooms, so that they will be able to have school as they would expect and would have hoped to have a year and a half ago. I think it will be viewed as relatively good news for folks.”

In School Administrative District 6, which serves the Buxton area, officials are already deep into fall planning and have hired several teachers to allow for smaller class sizes and physical distancing. Superintendent Paul Penna said they’ll plan to keep the additional staff and small class sizes, which will be a benefit to students after the past year.

“I think we’ll go with the idea we’re going to find lots of spots where there are gaps in education,” Penna said. “We’re going to need to do remediation, and smaller class sizes will help with that.”

Schools in the district also have been planning to get creative to allow for 6 feet of distance between students at lunch next year by setting up desks in gymnasiums and utilizing outdoor spaces during meals. “This totally helps us when we talk about lunches and what happens in October when it gets to be too cold to be out in the tent,” Penna said.

In Cumberland-based School Administrative District 51, the state’s announcement came just two days after the school board approved a fall reopening plan. In a letter to the community Wednesday afternoon, Superintendent Jeff Porter said the new guidance will allow the district to return to most, if not all, pre-pandemic activities. They also are planning to keep class sizes smaller than normal.

“We plan to continue hiring 10 additional teachers and locating 11 additional modular classrooms on our campus in order to meet this commitment,” Porter said. “The pandemic has disrupted the last 15 months of school, and smaller class sizes will allow all students to get more attention from instructional staff next year. Also, given all the ups and downs over this time, I want to make sure we continue to be prepared to meet whatever changing conditions may occur until we are sure the pandemic is finally over.”

Wednesday’s announcement comes a few weeks after the Department of Education originally announced it would relax distancing requirements for schools that achieved 30 percent participation in a free pooled testing program. That guidance is still in place for summer programming and the department is continuing to encourage districts to sign up for pooled testing for the fall.

Pooled testing combines nasal swab PCR testing from small groups of students that can be followed up with individual rapid tests in groups that collectively test positive.

As of Wednesday, 33 organizations – including 88 schools and camps encompassing an estimated 27,795 students, 2,802 teachers, and 2,012 staff – were participating in pooled testing. 

Over the summer, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention will continue to make updates and recommendations to guidance, including on whether students will need to wear masks in the fall.

“Getting all students back in classrooms full time this fall will be possible with vaccination progress and tools like pooled COVID-19 testing,” Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said in Wednesday’s release. “Safety protocols will continue to be needed, though, to protect students, school staff, and teachers from COVID-19 which continues to pose a public health threat.” 


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