Central Aroostook Junior/Senior High School students are greeted by Sadie Shaw, right, as they begin their first day of school on Wednesday, Aug. 12. Credit: David Marino Jr. | BDN

EASTON, Maine — As teachers and administrators across Maine come closer to facing the logistical challenges of teaching during a pandemic, they are looking north.

Easton and Mars Hill were the first public schools in Maine to go back to school after the pandemic sent students home in the spring to finish the year using remote learning. Fall classes began on Aug. 12.

Central Aroostook Junior-Senior High School Principal Kay York said educators from the rest of The County and even downstate have contacted her SAD 42 district asking how things are going.

Both York and Easton Superintendent Mark Stanley said classes have gone smoothly so far, with students following district and Maine Department of Education rules. Even with the new restrictions, most students and teachers were just happy to be back in school.

“I thought we’d have more trouble,” York said. “But I think kids want to be here.”

Nearly all of Maine’s school districts resuming in-person classes have detailed reopening plans with guidelines for every situation — from the distance between desks to dealing with students who refuse to socially distance.

But plans can change quickly, and practice is a far better indicator of what methods work best. Even in a county hit far less hard by COVID-19 than the rest of Maine — there are four active cases according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention — the more than 600 students in Easton and Central Aroostook are guinea pigs of sorts for a broader student body.

Educators said there have been a few issues along the way. A student who did not follow mask rules. Buses slowed down as they compete with an increased number of parents picking up their children from school. And the new workload for teachers that comes with a portion of students opting to learn remotely.

But those issues have been quickly resolved, and staff have tried to find exciting new ways to deal with the pandemic. Stanley said that elementary teachers made a game out of social distancing during transitions: having students pretend to fly as airplanes down the hallway, their arms stretched out to avoid contact with other students. At the high school, the virus has provided staff the opportunity to teach students about the science of disease transmission.

Both districts said that the rules have also brought changes to the classroom. In Central Aroostook — where students spend half their days in class and the other half doing work at home — they are only attending certain classes on certain days in shortened form. In Easton, many classes are still operated through Google Classroom, as teachers prepare to go fully remote in the event of an outbreak.

Both Easton Schools and SAD 42 have seen a sizable decrease in students taking the bus. Both had asked for parents who could manage it to transport their children to and from school to prevent strain on the busing system.

Stanley said that about half of all students in the district were getting to school without the bus, up from about 30 percent last year. York estimated that more than 50 percent of students at her school were being dropped off or driving to school themselves. Both schools recently purchased new buses as they prepared to deal with passenger limits on students.

Besides increased logistics and far more summer preparation, both districts were trying to make the best of a difficult situation. They would not allow a pandemic to obstruct their goals as educators.

“It’s different, but that’s okay,” York said. “We’re willing to do what we need to do to make the educational experience the best it can be.”