There is no substitute for in-person instruction.

Local school superintendents say this was one of the biggest takeaways from the pandemic year and one of the lessons they will carry forward.

“We have learned so much,” Lewiston Public Schools Superintendent Jake Langlais said. Probably the most valuable was the importance of face-to-face teaching and learning, he said.

“The dynamics of school that include routine, social interaction, nutrition, physical activity, nurses, guidance, student activities, parent/family connections, transportation, and so much more, have levels of fulfillment that cannot be satisfied looking at a computer screen,” Langlais said.

Lewiston Public Schools Superintendent Jake Langlais: “Teachers are as valuable to our communities as doctors, lawyers and many other highly respected professions.” Sun Journal file photo

Most Maine school districts over the past year adopted hybrid models of student attendance — two days a week in school and the other days working remotely by computer — to comply with state and federal mandates during the yearlong surge of COVID-19.

Mandates included social distancing, keeping students at least 3 feet apart in classrooms and on buses, and masking to avoid spreading the airborne virus.

“Looking back, I would say the work of the pandemic was a full-time job,” Langlais said.

Superintendents across the region say hard work taught them valuable lessons about what is important for students, educators and communities.

“Let this be an opportunity to thrust the profession of teaching into the light in which it should be held,” Langlais said. “Teachers are as valuable to our communities as doctors, lawyers and many other highly respected professions.”

Teachers are the key, he said, “and we have very good ones in Lewiston.”

Communication also was key to making it through the past year — “a strength of our efforts,” Langlais said. New tools such as TalkingPoints, a multilingual engagement platform that helps teachers and families stay connected via text message, and translation and interpretation apps allowed people to get the information they needed.

Kindergarten teacher Elizabeth Leo attaches the bracelet Galia Sheja made to her wrist Thursday while Habsa Omar makes her own bracelet at Farwell Elementary School in Lewiston. Students attend Summer STEM Camp four days a week over the summer. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

“Our community has come together through the pandemic,” he said.

And yet, it will be good to get back into a routine, he said. School districts plan to fully reopen in the fall, depending on whether the virus continues to wane.

“We want to get back to basics, build back the routine and keep student growth the primary goal,” Langlais said.

BROWN: ‘NO SUBSTITUTE FOR TEACHER-STUDENT ENGAGEMENT’

In Auburn, the School Committee worked toward that goal throughout the year.

“The committee here was very clear from the beginning that we needed to get kids back in schools as quickly as possible, so figure it out,” Superintendent Connie Brown said. “They never wavered from that.”

Auburn School Superintendent Connie Brown: “The opportunity to be with a teacher in person is irreplaceable.” Submitted photo

Edward Little High School fully reopened in the spring and elementary schools welcomed back students struggling with remote instruction.

“The opportunity to be with a teacher in person is irreplaceable,” Brown said. “There is just no substitute for teacher-student engagement. We made the best of the situation, but kids need their teachers.”

She said her biggest takeaway from the past year was the “extraordinary resilience” of students and staff.

“I watched kids, teachers, coaches, athletes and families do their level best to adapt to the ‘new normal’ of the 2020-21 school year,” she said. “Never underestimate the ability of people to do the right thing.”

Brown is a veteran educator and administrator with decades of experience, but her first year in Auburn was like her first year as a superintendent, she said.

“Everything had to be done differently,” she said. “We had to adapt.”

She heard the same thing from experienced teachers, she said.

“People said it was like their first year of teaching all over again. They had to reinvent how to deliver lessons over screens.”

With students in class only two days a week, educators had to figure out how to connect on the other three days. That meant making video lessons that could be watched remotely and calling and emailing every student every week.

Teachers stepped up, Brown said. “I’m so impressed with how hard the staff worked to meet the kids where they were — remote, in-person, etc. They were masterful.”

She also praised support staff for delivering tens of thousands of meals, providing tech support and checking in on students.

“Kids also deserve a lot of praise,” she said. “A year ago, we were thinking kids wouldn’t mask, they wouldn’t distance, but they did. They tuned in and gave it everything they had to make it a successful year.”

That success proved to her that “we can do hard things,” she said. “The pandemic was unlike anything my generation had been through. The shutdown and shortages of basic supplies were all new experiences for me. I didn’t have that frame of reference.”

COLPITTS: ‘WHAT WE DO BEST IS IN-PERSON LEARNING’

Adapting to the situation meant developing and designing flexibilities that school districts didn’t know existed, said Rick Colpitts, the former superintendent of the Oxford Hills school district based in Paris.

Colpitts saw the district through the pandemic year and took a new job this month as school superintendent of Maine’s Unorganized Territory.

He said he also learned a lot about school nurses and infectious diseases over the past year. And he became aware of the “resiliency and grit” of his teaching staff.

“Teachers are human, too,” he said. “The pandemic had an impact on their psyches, feeling strongly that they wanted to provide the best education they could but also concerned about putting themselves out there for exposure.”

Rick Colpitts, former superintendent of the Oxford Hills school district: “We learned a lot last year about what we do well, and what we do best is in-person learning. Teachers are highly skilled and knowledgeable about that.” Submitted photo

Educators were “very malleable and flexible,” Colpitts said. “They did whatever they could, even though it wasn’t easy.”

Many teachers in the region said they worked 12-hour days during the week and several hours on weekends to keep up with lesson planning for in-person and remote instruction and to stay in contact with students.

Face-to-face instruction was a thing “we always took for granted,” Colpitts said. “We learned a lot last year about what we do well, and what we do best is in-person learning. Teachers are highly skilled and knowledgeable about that.”

Human engagement is a huge factor in learning, he said.

He said he thought the district had been through everything — boilers dying, mold issues, quality issues, a fire — before the pandemic. “Those all seem minor now,” he said. “We learned that when push comes to shove, we can still come up with ways to provide an education.”

As president of the Superintendents’ Association of Maine, Colpitts sat in on regional meetings with other superintendents and Education Commissioner Pender Makin.

“The intentionality of trying to move forward and address each nuance was really helpful,” he said. “We learned that working together, we could get a lot more accomplished than if we stayed in our own silos.”

Colpitts praised the community and the students in the eight-town district he oversaw for their “extraordinary patience and willingness to contribute to solutions.”

He never heard a student complain about having to wear a mask or maintain social distancing, he said.

GREEN: ‘I’M CONVINCED … WE COULD (NOW) HANDLE ANYTHING UNEXPECTED’ 

For Lisbon Schools Superintendent Rick Green, the importance of communication was the biggest lesson learned.

“Many of the standards and recommendations changed on a daily basis without very much warning or time to prepare,” Green said.

Lisbon Schools Superintendent Rick Green

Rick Green, superintendent of Lisbon Schools: “I’m convinced that as a result of our flexibility and determination, we could handle anything unexpected.” Submitted photo

He said that often, guidelines from the Maine and national centers for disease control and the Maine Department of Education were different.

“We spent a lot of time communicating these differences to families, staff and students as a result,” he said.

Moving forward, many things that were implemented during the pandemic year will continue to be part of programming, Green said.

“Some of the most critical were the designated social distancing stickers in the hallways and cafeterias that helped to keep students separated and reduced a significant amount of ‘behaviors,’” he said.

He said thermal cameras, hand sanitizer stations and improved air quality measures will provide protections from other health-related issues in the future.

“I’m convinced that as a result of our flexibility and determination, we could handle anything unexpected,” he said, because successfully dealing with COVID-19 “has instilled a confidence within our staff, schools and community.”

He said thinking outside the box was mandatory and shifting learning experiences outdoors was successful.

“Although we were able to conduct full in-person learning for all but a few weeks of the year, utilizing Zoom and distance-learning protocols will be useful for students who are unable to attend, and in some cases, can replace our traditional snow days,” he said.

He said he was “extremely proud” of Lisbon schools staff, students and families for coming together during “these most difficult times.”

When there was never a clear answer, educators and support staff made the most of a bad situation.

“Our success was a direct result of their efforts and commitment,” he said.

HEALEY: ‘THEY MET THE CHALLENGE HEAD-ON WITHOUT COMPLAINT’

RSU 16 Superintendent Kenneth Healey: “When faced with the impossible, they met the challenge head-on without complaint or fanfare.” Submitted photo

Regional School Unit 16 Superintendent Kenneth Healey said his biggest takeaway was the resilience of students, administrators, teachers and support staff. The district comprises the towns of Poland, Minot and Mechanic Falls.

“When faced with the impossible, they met the challenge head-on without complaint or fanfare,” Healey said.

He said the district is “absolutely” better-prepared for the unexpected. Lessons learned over the past year, “specifically, the expansion of technology in our students’ everyday academic life should help us close the academic losses that the pandemic created.”

He said he learned also that when educators focus on the most critical academic standards, even in a compressed time frame, students can still make gains.

He said one nice surprise was how quickly teachers and support staff adjusted their educational practices to meet the immediate needs of the hybrid system.

 

SANDERS: ‘EVERYONE … EXPERIENCED AT LEAST ONE TEACHABLE MOMENT’

The ability to adapt was essential during the past year, School Administrative District 58 Superintendent Todd Sanders said. The district includes the Franklin County towns of Kingfield, Phillips, Avon and Strong.

SAD 58 superintendent Todd Sanders: “I think everyone involved in providing education to students during the pandemic experienced at least one ‘teachable moment’…” Submitted photo

“Our students, parents/guardians, teachers, support staff, administrators and everyone else associated with SAD 58 were truly professional and very resilient,” Sanders said.

He said everyone was able to assess the challenges, brainstorm solutions and implement them.

Another takeaway was the importance of collaboration among school districts in the region, he said. The work they did together was essential in continuing to provide quality education.

As with every challenge and the successful tackling of it, Sanders said, he came away with positives.

Even though he is a strong believer in the importance of direct interaction and the development of quality relationships provided by in-person instruction, some students were more successful getting remote instruction, he said.

“It would be best educational practice to replicate these pathways in a more traditional setting,” he said.

And with any challenge comes the opportunity for learning, he said.

“I think everyone involved in providing education to students during the pandemic experienced at least one ‘teachable moment’ that they will remember, and it will be a resource for them in the future.”

Sanders credited teachers, bus drivers, custodians and maintenance staff, food service staff, nurses, education technicians, administrative assistants, administrators and school boards with rising to the challenges.

“I believe it is our job to make sure the public is aware of the outstanding efforts of our teachers and everyone else who allowed education to continue in a very challenging time,” he said. “If nothing else, they certainly have my respect and appreciation.”


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