April 07, 2020
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Here’s why the coronavirus response by Maine’s K-12 schools is different (so far) from public universities

Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
John Bapst Memorial High School

As of 5:30 p.m. Saturday, March 14, three Maine residents have tested presumptive positive for the coronavirus, according to the state. Click here for the latest coronavirus news, which the BDN has made free for the public. You can support this mission by purchasing a digital subscription

Even though public school districts across Maine are monitoring the coronavirus situation as it unfolds, the response of K-12 schools differs greatly compared with that of several universities and colleges in Maine. Education for students from kindergarten through 12th grade is mandated by law, and far fewer students in grades K-12 travel out of state as frequently as university students, according to school superintendents.

On Tuesday, the state’s public university system announced an upcoming transition to remote instruction and asked students to leave campus in 10 days. In addition to the University of Maine System’s seven universities, Colby and Bowdoin colleges have said they intend to move classes to remote instruction after spring break next week and have asked students to move off campus.

No public elementary, middle or high schools in Maine have announced or anticipated closures as of March 12, according to Maine Department of Education’s Director of Communications Kelli Deveaux

[Here’s what has been canceled or postponed in Maine due to coronavirus]

The first confirmed case in Maine of the new coronavirus, COVID-19, was announced Thursday by Gov. Janet Mills. A woman who lives in Androscoggin County has tested positive for the disease, but a Lewiston schools official said the district will not shut down as of now.

“Nothing changes with us at all,” Lewiston superintendent Todd Finn said. “From a superintendent’s standpoint, the closing of schools will do much more harm than good. We’re staying the course.”

The reason K-12 school districts have not announced closures is because in many ways, schools have a greater responsibility to stay in session compared with universities, according to district leaders.

“The big thing is that K-12 education is mandated and students have to go to school,” Bangor schools Superintendent Betsy Webb said. “At the higher level, that’s a choice to go to school.”

Brewer schools Superintendent Gregg Palmer said that students’ travel patterns at the university level are much more extensive than at a local school district, which is why local schools don’t have as much to worry about in terms of person-to-person spread through someone who may have traveled internationally and brought the virus back.

“One difference is that [university students] are coming from all over the world. With many of them traveling around the world, that’s a concern for them,” Palmer said. “With a local school district, you don’t have that.”

Mel McKay, head of school at John Bapst, said that the school has not announced plan to switch to remote learning, and that international students will stay in the dorms owned by the school, unless parents want their children to travel back home.

“Boarding schools have a different level of responsibility from colleges and universities because our kids are just that: They’re kids,” McKay said. “And so we’ll do what we need to do to take care of them.”

[Do you have questions about the coronavirus? Ask us here.]

Bangor area school superintendents said that avoiding closing down schools is in the community’s best interest.

Webb said one reason elementary schools are less likely to move classes online is because younger students do not have the capacity to learn independently using the internet. The first time students interact with technology one-on-one is in middle school, she said.

“At the higher education level it’s expected that you have the technology and you’re interacting with the technology,” she said.

Maine schools serving students in grades K-12 will only be closing with direct consultation with the Maine CDC under their advisement, Deveaux said.

“At this point, we have no reason to anticipate a closing of any school however schools are — because that’s what they’ve been advised to do — preparing for any eventuality to ensure that they are able to care for the educational continuity for their students,” she said.

Most school districts are taking precautions like extra cleaning, asking sick staff or students to stay at home if sick and providing hygiene guidelines. The Department of Education has a webinar on its resource page for COVID-19 that helps administrators develop a pandemic plan, put a tracking system in place and ensure educational continuity if schools have to be shut down.

The Bangor school department has created two weeks worth of hard copy take-home packets for students in the event that schools have to close down. The district will not switch to online learning, Superintendent Betsy Webb said, because many families do not have access to the internet at home.

“It’s important for us to try to stay in session for parents that rely upon their children being in school while they work,” Webb said. “And many students who receive free breakfast, lunch and even a meal after school.”

Palmer that the school district will not be relying on two-week take-home packets, since all students cannot be expected to engage with remote learning at the same level.

“I think it’s more about when we return, how do we help everybody get back on track at that time,” he said.

As far as school lunch programs, the USDA has waived a rule stating that school lunches must be served in a group setting, also known as the congregate feeding requirement. The waiver would permit school districts to continue to provide meals at no cost to low-income students.

In Portland, the waiver allows the 6,000 students under the age of 18 in the city’s public school system to access school lunch at one of the sites approved by the district for the summer meals program, and follow the regulations for that program.

“Once school closes we can no longer serve national school lunch,” said Jane McLucas, food service director for the Portland Public Schools district.

McLucas said the district was still discussing which of the 15 sites would be set up as meal sites. There would be no transactions at the sites.

“The waivers have allowed for meals to go home, that’s a good thing,” McLucas said. “The USDA is listening to districts and the hurdles they’re coming up against.”

BDN writer Nick Schroeder contributed to this report.

Watch: Symptoms of the coronavirus disease

 


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