To accommodate social distancing and allow for masks to be removed while eating, only two students can share a table at lunch. Lunch tables are set up in both the cafeteria and the gym at Brewer High School. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Many Bangor-area students could soon be in school four or five days a week for the first time since last March.

As teachers and school staff get vaccinated and virus cases stabilize in Penobscot County, three public school districts in the area and a private high school are bringing students back for more in-person learning days. But they’re moving ahead with their plans cautiously, as an uptick in virus cases could force them to reassess.

The Bangor School Department has offered full-time, in-person learning since schools reopened in September, but other area districts — including Brewer, Hermon and RSU 22 in the Hampden area — have chosen hybrid models under which students attend school two or three days a week in person and learn remotely the rest.

Now, a year into the pandemic, schools in Hermon, Dedham and the Hampden area have already brought students back for three, four or even all five days a week or plan to in the near future, according to administrators. The Brewer School Department plans to discuss allowing students back more days each week at a school committee meeting in early April, and John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor is considering a four-day in-person school week after spring break next month.

“We started talking a few weeks ago about how things may be changing,” said John Bapst’s associate head of school, Dave Armistead. “The biggest thing we need to have happen is things need to be closer to normal without the risk of people getting sick with COVID.”

Some school districts have been hoping to bring students back full-time this spring to help those who are falling behind. Others have heard from parents who want their children to attend school five days a week. There’s wide agreement that full-time, in-person learning is ideal, but social distancing requirements are the limiting factor.

That’s led to different approaches.

The Hermon School Department prioritized bringing elementary-school students back to school three days a week in person, up from two, which started this week. High schoolers also have the chance to learn in-person on Mondays now if they need extra help, in addition to their two regular in-person days, Superintendent Jim Chasse said.

“In many ways, I’m grateful although I wish it were more,” he said. “When you compare nationally, some students are just starting to return for day one in school since last March.”

With 3 feet of distance required between students and staff when everyone is masked, and 6 feet when they’re not, class sizes have had to shrink during the pandemic. Most Bangor-area schools chose to bring students back in cohorts to reduce the number of people in a school building at any given time and reduce interactions among different groups.

But as it increases the number of days students learn in person, John Bapst will no longer have cohorts.

Most schools in RSU 22 will also get rid of the hybrid cohort structure and increase

in-person instruction from two to 4 1/2 days in the coming weeks, according to Superintendent Regan Nickels. But Hampden Academy will retain cohorts due to space limitations.

The Dedham School is small enough to bring all students, who are in kindergarten through eighth grade, back full-time. Each grade has its own classroom, and the school can limit interactions between different classrooms, according to Principal Jeff Paul.

“We haven’t always had the space so we had to do some rearranging and move some classrooms into larger spaces,” he said. “But now we have the space, so the next logical step for us was to go five days a week.”

Every district has a small percentage of students who will continue learning exclusively remotely for the rest of the school year. While social distancing requirements remain in place, schools can’t allow remote students to return in person, according to Bangor’s interim superintendent, Kathy Harris-Smedberg.

While schools have made plans to bring students back and hope to continue with the increased in-person days for the next few months, they are prepared to make changes as the COVID-19 situation fluctuates.

“We are cautiously optimistic that we can maintain the path that we’re on right now,” Paul said. “But we do know that, given what’s happened in the past, we can’t guarantee being here five days a week for the rest of the year.”