Emily Robinson, a special education teacher at Vine Street School in Bangor, smiles when she sees the face of one of her students on her computer screen in this April 2020 file photo. Though the COVID pandemic appears to be easing in the U.S. and many school districts expect to be able to return to full in-person learning this fall, some Maine school districts say they may keep remote learning as an option for some students. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

After more than a year of remote and hybrid learning, educators expect that learning will be far closer to normal for the nearly 20,000 Penobscot County public school students returning to school in the fall.

Yet, remote learning is unlikely to go away immediately, at least in the near term. Educators from several Bangor-area districts said they would likely continue to offer remote learning programs for students, some of whom have excelled over the medium during the pandemic. 

While education experts tend to believe more students have struggled with remote learning, they acknowledge that some students have thrived under it, especially those with generalized anxiety disorder or other severe mental disorders. Some students also like its self-guided nature.

About half of all Mainers have now received at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention data. While it remains unclear what that number will be when the 2021-22 school year begins in the fall, many Maine educators are cautiously optimistic about the ability for full-time in-person learning.

But they don’t want to ignore the lessons of remote learning. The Brewer School Department has applied for a Maine Department of Education grant to continue remote learning in the next semester, superintendent Gregg Palmer said. The grant is through the Maine Department of Education’s Reinventing Remote Education Ventures, a federally funded initiative that supports the development of new remote learning programs throughout the state. 

The program is an extension of the inventive remote learning practices that had emerged during the pandemic, Maine Department of Education spokesperson Kelli Deveaux said. 

“The disruption caused by COVID-19 necessitated the rethinking and redesigning of a 200-plus-year-old system of education,” Deveaux said. “While there were many lessons learned, there were also amazing and innovative practices that emerged.”

The Brewer program would likely have a selective criteria, catering to students who were especially helped by remote learning, Palmer said. Any teachers involved would only teach remote students.

Palmer said a selective program is vital because it could risk being counterproductive for some students. For example, educators could better help students who are frequently bullied by creating a safe in-person learning environment rather than transitioning them to a remote setting.

“We don’t want remote learning to be a place where people hide,” Palmer said. “If anyone’s going remote, we want it to be because there are significant reasons why that’s the healthiest place for them today.”

Interim Bangor Superintendent Kathy Harris-Smedberg said decisions on remote learning have not been made for the upcoming school year and would be contingent on physical distancing requirements. She said final decisions would come from James Tager, who will take over as district superintendent in July.

In an April interview, Tager said rising vaccination numbers seemed to point to Bangor students learning in-person in the fall, though it remains unclear whether some restrictions, such as mask requirements, will remain. However, he said a remote learning component was possible.

“I would say we may have some remote learning options, possibly, depending on the guidelines,” Tager said. 

Select students at RSU 19, a Newport-based district that also takes students from nearby communities including Corinna, Dixmont, Hartland and Palmyra, will get the chance to learn remotely in a separate program, superintendent Michael Hammer said. 

While many of the details are still being ironed out, Hammer said the program would be grant-funded and, like Brewer’s, would feature a few teachers who exclusively teach students remotely.

Hammer said the district was ready to accommodate students who want to learn remotely, but acknowledged that most students preferred in-person learning. And while his teachers had excelled under challenging circumstances during the pandemic, it was in-person teaching that they had spent years learning to master. 

“We like having our students with us,” Hammer said. “So we can keep our eyes on them and see what’s going on in their lives.”