Credit: George Danby / BDN

The state recently announced that school districts in all 16 counties can consider in-person instruction, with “green” ratings based on assessments of COVID-19 risk. Nevertheless, school administrators face the difficult task of coming up with plans that best support the needs of students, while at the same time meeting all the new health and safety requirements. Given limited resources and local circumstances such as facility space, priorities will need to be made.

In normal times, there is no doubt that in-person learning is best for kids. In addition to academics, schools provide emotional skills development, social engagement with peers, healthy meals, special education, care so that parents can work and trusted relationships with adults. There are serious risks for some children who are isolated at home in unsafe environments. There is also evidence that remote learning this spring exacerbated racial and economic disparities in learning outcomes.

The Maine Department of Education has issued a Framework for Returning to Classroom Instruction and is distributing additional resources to districts from the state’s CARES Act money, as new health and safety protocols will mean significant added operational costs.

With all this in mind, the Maine Children’s Alliance has some recommendations for schools to consider the following in their planning and allocation of resources.

Schools should prioritize in-person learning for pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade students and those with special needs. The American Academy of Pediatrics and National Academy of Sciences issued statements urging schools to resume in-classroom instruction where safely possible, acknowledging the critical role schools play in adolescent growth and development. For our youngest students, daily in-person instruction is best. For middle and high school students, who are more capable of learning remotely, virtual or hybrid models make more sense. For older students who fell far behind academically last spring, and those with special needs, priority should be given to their full-time, in-person participation to ensure they receive support.

Schools must also be prepared to address social and emotional needs of students and staff. The needs of students returning to school will be significant. Many families have suffered financial hardship and trauma during this crisis. Social isolation, disruption to daily life and the fear surrounding COVID-19 have heightened stress and anxiety. Relationships are the critical element to ensuring students are engaged. Social distancing and remote learning will make maintaining those relationships more challenging. Schools should dedicate resources to ensure mental health professionals are available and include plans to check-in with students. The work environment for all staff will be stressful, and support and training should be provided.

It’s also important to develop community solutions to support family child care needs. If schools plan for less than full-time, in-school schedules, working parents of young students will urgently need child care. Families should not be left alone to arrange and pay for the care that schools have previously provided. The burden will be greatest for low-income and single-parent families who lack flexibility in their work. Districts should partner with and provide resources to area child care and youth services providers to address gaps in care created by modified school schedules or sudden closures.

In addition, schools must meaningfully engage with stakeholders and communicate clearly in developing and implementing plans. We all want our schools to work for students, teachers and families in these new and difficult circumstances. It is vital that districts solicit feedback from a range of stakeholders and share plans for reopening with transparency and clarity. For any plan to work, parents, students and staff must all feel confident in their understanding of what a return to school will look like.

Harvard’s Global Health Institute reports that Maine is one of only a few states with COVID-19 indicators that may allow most students and staff to return to in-person instruction this fall. This puts us in a unique position to consider what’s best for the holistic well-being of children as we plan to return to school.

Schools need our collective support more than ever. Let’s continue to work together to curb the spread of this virus, and to come up with innovative plans that keep our teachers and children safe and successfully engaged in learning this fall.

Stephanie Eglinton is the executive director of the Maine Children’s Alliance.