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As Maine schools wait for some direction from the state to finalize their plans for reopening in the fall, at least one thing is clear: Schools will not be the same places they were before COVID-19.
How different K-12 education will look come September is still unknown due to the lack of detailed state and local plans and a virus situation that could rapidly change. But Maine schools, like all others nationwide, will have to implement robust safety precautions to ensure a safe return to in-person learning after their buildings shut down in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Whatever the new safety measures are, they will likely disrupt education as students know it and result in added expenses for school districts already operating on tight budgets.
“We’re trying to balance child safety, the value of in-classroom education and of course, recognizing that everyone’s budgets are strained right now,” Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said earlier this week.
The starting point for the state’s recommendations for schools is likely to be school reopening guidelines released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about two weeks ago.
Those guidelines recommended a long list of measures schools should take, such as spacing desks more than six feet apart in classrooms, installing plexiglass barriers where physical distancing might not be possible, and eliminating or cutting down on the use of communal spaces such as cafeterias and playgrounds.
If possible, the guidelines suggest, schools should serve individually plated meals in classrooms. They should also limit outside visitors and use virtual alternatives to field trips, student assemblies and other school-wide events.
Generally, under those guidelines, schools should have the same groups of students and staff remain together throughout the day to prevent intermingling.
While following these guidelines would reduce the risk of virus transmission, schools would have to change practically everything about the way they operate.
“The CDC guidelines provide great parameters or the rules of the road,” Shah said. “The question will be how those are operationalized, and whether they will be operationalized the same way in every district. It may look different in different parts of the state for different schools.”
The Maine Department of Education is working on its own guidelines for school reopenings. In May, the department released some guidelines for summer school, which include many of the same recommendations as the U.S. CDC’s guidance.
“The timeline for when this guidance will be issued has not yet been established,” said Kelli Deveaux, a spokesperson for the Maine Department of Education. “Given the evolving nature of this pandemic, any guidance provided on what the start of school year 2020-2021 will look like will be based on what we know at the present time, and will continue to be revised, based on the most updated information available.”
On May 15, Education Commissioner Pender Makin said the department is hoping for a full return to in-person schooling, but is also preparing for other scenarios such as a partial return to school with at-home learning for high-risk students or staff, continued remote learning for everyone and a fourth scenario under which schools resume in-person instruction but are disrupted again by a resurgence in COVID-19 infections.
Most Maine school districts are waiting on the state’s recommendations before they make detailed plans.
“In the beginning, as the Bangor School Department started to look at [the U.S. CDC guidelines], it was overwhelming because it is such a change from the way we’ve operated,” said Betsy Webb, Bangor’s school superintendent. “Whatever our plan is, it has to be realistic, it has to be sustainable and it has to be affordable.”
For now, the Bangor is making plans using a checklist that the U.S. CDC has released called a “ school decision tree.”
Staggered school start times, daily temperature checks for students, and strategies to keep large groups from congregating at entrances and in hallways are all options the department is considering, Webb said.
In a school environment, simple precautions such as social distancing, frequent hand washing and face covering requirements can be challenging when compared with business settings that have started reopening in Maine.
Bangor schools, for example, are already using 95 percent of available school building space, and not all classrooms have bathrooms attached or nearby. (The Maine Department of Education’s summer school guidelines suggest that schools use classrooms with attached or nearby bathrooms.)
Wearing face coverings is also not feasible for speech therapists and the students who work with them.
Webb said she hopes to be able to bring a reopening plan to the city’s school committee for its approval in July, but districts can’t make their plans without state guidance.
“Safety is our top priority. But how do we bring students and staff back to school and prioritize in-person instruction, which we believe is the optimal situation?” Webb said. “There is no way to go back to what used to be normal.”
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