Sustained support from parents and guardians will be the key to getting children back to school safely, several superintendents said of the school reopening guidelines released by the Maine Department of Education on Friday.
Helping parents, students and staff better understand why the rules are being established also will be an important factor, the school administrators said.
“It won’t be easy, but these are not easy times,” said South Portland Superintendent Ken Kunin, noting that becoming accustomed to facial coverings, conducting self-checks for COVID-19 symptoms and other new procedures will be difficult, especially for the youngest students.
Portland Superintendent Xavier Botana is grateful to the Department of Education for providing guidance to help schools make decisions about how to reopen in the fall.
“I am appreciative of the fact they are trying to provide science-based evidence around how to make the decision as to whether you should have children in school or not, and not adopting a uniform do or don’t,” Botana said. “Instead it’s ‘Here’s the data and here’s how you should think about your decisions.’ I appreciate the recognition it will be challenging no matter what and it will be costly no matter what.”
Kunin said South Portland school officials were not especially surprised by the details in the reopening plan, but are glad they now have a working document that will guide their planning.
South Portland and most school districts around Maine already have been planning for a reentry into learning for K-12 students. Many already have prepared plans for three scenarios: all students in school, a combination of in-school and at-home learning, and everybody still learning from home.
Those styles of learning also could ebb and flow based on the situation with the virus in Maine, infection rates locally, or if there is an outbreak at a school.
“One of the good things we have going for us is that our parents have been very supportive,” said Craig King, superintendent of SAD 15, which serves Gray and New Gloucester. He said that since the onset of the pandemic in Maine and the closure of classroom learning, families and staff have stepped up.
King said issues around things like getting students used to wearing facial coverings when in school will go smoother with support from parents.
“If we can get our parents on board, educating parents with the kids sometimes, we can get everybody there,” King said. He said some men do not like to wear a necktie for business meetings but they learn how to do it. He said kids will learn, too. King said he gets his coffee at a local shop each morning and sometimes forgets his facial covering, but he always goes back to get it.
“We are going to need to be reminded,” he said. He said learning a new behavior is not always convenient, but when students know why they have to do something it’s much easier for them to learn.
Kunin said the clear and detailed guidance from the state will help districts shore up the plans they’ve been working on. Additionally, school officials learned Friday that the Mills administration will be using $165 million of federal CARES Act funding for schools.
Botana said he is eager to find out more about how the state will be distributing the $165 million in additional funding announced Friday.
“I think the most interesting thing from my perspective is really understanding how do those dollars flow to districts and for what purpose,” Botana said. “Being able to meet all those requirements is going to cost a significant amount of money that’s not in our budget. Upgrading ventilation, upgrading facilities and hiring enough staff to make sure kids are keeping masks on and things like that are going to cost a significant amount of money. I’m grateful there’s a clear recognition of that and interested to see how it will play out and how districts will get information about how that money will flow.”
King said seeing the details of the state’s guidelines would help set local reopening plans in motion.
“For good or for bad we have something in print now that we can work with and that’s what we are going to do,” he said.
Botana is concerned about staffing and what will happen if a significant number of teachers and staff have legitimate medical reasons that prohibit them from returning in-person, as well as how the district will enforce mask wearing, self-checks and other requirements.
“It will be a significant operation for us to make sure, of the 400 kids that just arrived (at a school), which ones did not do their self-check and stop them before they come into the building,” Botana said. “That’s going to be a significant undertaking.”
Kunin said state and local officials have been working hand-in-hand for weeks along with the Maine CDC to get a collaborative and flexible plan together that put forward “sensible measures” to keep students and staff safe. He said the new guidelines from the state give a measure of confidence and were modeled on what has been achieved in other countries where in-person learning has resumed.
“If the education is there, students and staff will comply with sensible measures to protect the community’s safety,” Kunin said.