RSU 9 board discusses return of school

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FARMINGTON – Administrators with Regional School Unit 9 provided school board directors with a proposed Return to School proposal that included in-person and remote learning options Tuesday evening, discussing safety requirements, academic expectations and federal funding in advance of a public forum scheduled for Thursday. The board is expected to sign off on the district’s final plan on Aug. 11.

School administrators and staff have been working throughout the summer on three models: a full return to school for participating students; a remote learning program; and a hybrid program in which schools reopen on a partial schedule, with students also utilizing remote instruction.

The intent for the start of the school year, as of now, is to reopen grades pre-K through 8 for a full return, with grades 9 through 12 participating in the hybrid model. All parents will also be offered a remote instruction option for their children, on a quarter by quarter basis. As described by Superintendent Tina Meserve, parents will need to opt in to either the in-person or remote option at the beginning of the school year.

The models adhere to guidelines developed by the Maine Department of Education and the Center for Disease Control for in-school students: mandatory face coverings, hand-washing during transitions throughout the building and 3-feet social distancing buffers for students, 6 feet for teachers. On the bus, students will sit one to a seat, unless they’re from the same family. Buses will also arrive 30 minutes later to allow for time to manage student arrivals while maintaining social distancing.

As presented Tuesday, the schedule calls for school to start Aug. 31, with pre-K through grade 5 students being in school from 9:30 a.m. to 3:12 p.m. Middle school students would be in school from 8:15 a.m. to 2:02 p.m.

Use of the “full return” model is dependent upon securing adequate space for students in the buildings and on buses. A survey has been sent to parents of all RSU 9 students, asking specifically what their plans are, with responses due back by Aug. 8. Administrators need that information to determine the number of students to plan for and to make transportation arrangements. While staff intend to contact all parents that don’t fill out a survey by Aug. 8, administrators hope to limit that effort by encouraging parents to fill out the survey, located here.

The full return model would include requirements that parents screen for symptoms prior to their students going to school and provisions in case a student became sick at school. The district does not anticipate having access to COVID testing material – such tests would be provided at the direction of the student’s primary care provider.

The remote program will make use of specific learning platforms – Seesaw for grades pre-K through 5 and Google Classroom for grades 6 through 12 – rather than a mix of platforms. This year’s model will include the recording of student attendance, the grading of student work and incorporates the same educational expectations for remote learning students as it does for the in-person students.

Internet access remains a challenge for many families within the district. RSU 9 will be purchasing and providing hotspots – equipment that utilizes cellphone access to provide Internet service – but that won’t address people that may live in areas without cellphone reception. Superintendent Tina Meserve said that the district would work with students and parents whenever possible; one option would be accessing the Internet outside schools or other locations, such as libraries.

The district is anticipating $2.8 million in additional federal funding relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. The majority of that – roughly $2.2 million – will have to be expended before Dec. 30, with the remaining balance spent by September 2021. Among other uses, that money will fund new cleaning equipment, masks, other personal protective gear and additional positions – remote teachers, substitutes and health professionals. Meserve said that she’s still finalizing that budget, but that there would be money available for some board priorities, such as the alcohol/drug counselor brought up during the budget process.

If the state’s monitoring of the pandemic indicates a potential issue within the region or if schools cannot bring all students back and meet the DOE/CDC guidelines, a hybrid plan will be employed. As presented Tuesday evening, the high school would start the year as a hybrid program. The biggest issue, Meserve said, was the social distancing requirement. There wasn’t enough space to meet that requirement, particularly at bottlenecks such as hallways.

The hybrid plan consists of having most students participate in two days of in-person learning and three days of remote learning. Students would be divided into cohorts by last name, in order to try and keep siblings together, and would go two of the four weekdays, Monday through Thursday, with Friday being a universal remote learning day.

As currently proposed for the first quarter, the first day of high school would be Aug. 31. In-school hours would be 8:15 a.m. until 2:02 p.m. As of now, there is no intention to run any after school programs at the start of the school year – sports seasons have already been postponed – or run a shuttle bus. There will also be no late-arrival Wednesdays.

Students in programs that require significant support, such as some Special Education students, will be fully returning. Foster Tech will be working to provide students with enough in person hours to qualify for whatever credentials the student may be working toward, but the program may look different.

There will be changes within specific elements of the school day, even for in-person students. Teaching some music classes in their usual format will be difficult, for example, so alternative programs may be offered.

“Right now,” Meserve said, “we can’t have kids singing.”

School board directors asked a wide variety of questions, ranging from the 3-foot distance requirement to whether students could choose between face shields or masks to traffic patterns accommodating increases in parental transportation to installing temperature scanning equipment at school entryways. Administrators intend to hear from staff directly on Thursday – currently only staff can attend that meeting. A separate “Family and Community Feedback Forum” has been scheduled for Aug. 6 at 6 p.m., conducted via Zoom. That meeting will be accessible through the district’s website, located here.

It is anticipated that the board will make its decision on the district’s Return to School plan at its Aug. 11 meeting.


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