The BDN is making the most crucial coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact in Maine free for all readers. Click here for all coronavirus stories. You can join others committed to safeguarding this vital public service by purchasing a subscription or donating directly to the newsroom.
The Bangor and Brewer school departments, like many others in the state, are putting together three separate plans for reopening public schools in fall, including a full return to in-person schooling, a combination of in-person and online learning and a fully online semester.
But to decide which plan to put into action, they will need input from the state.
The Maine Department of Education and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention will work together to help school district leaders across Maine in determining the COVID-19 related risk factors and health assessments of their communities, according to department spokesperson Kelli Deveaux.
Local health assessments can include a decline of influenza-like illnesses and COVID-like cases in the area; a downward trajectory of documented cases and newly hospitalized patients; and local hospital capacity.
The department also will assess the readiness of school administrative units to reopen for in-person instruction based on how closely they’ve followed the cleaning, social distancing and communication guidelines the department issued in June.
Based on the risk factors, schools can choose a mode of instruction. Both the Department of Education and local school districts are hoping that if Maine’s relatively lower number of COVID-19 infections compared to the rest of the country holds up, students will be able to physically return to school in fall.
“We feel that the optimal learning environment is in-person,” Bangor Superintendent Betsy Webb said. “But we fully realize that some students may need remote learning, or a hybrid environment.”
But even if students go back to in-person instruction full-time, they will be returning to a school environment that looks very different from the one they left in March, when the coronavirus forced nationwide closures.
Bangor, for instance, will ask all teachers, staff and administrators to wear face coverings or face shields inside the buildings. Following Maine CDC guidelines, Bangor is also planning to ask older students to wear masks.
Other things the district is likely to put into the reopening plan is social distancing guidelines for each building, including all classrooms and hallways, closing off playgrounds or other communal use surfaces, and encouraging students to arrange their own transportation to school to avoid being in close quarters on school buses.
In school districts that choose a hybrid model, students will return to school a few days a week and have online instruction on other days
Under the Brewer school department’s hybrid framework, students might be able to return to school anywhere between one day a week or every other day.
The school district will reduce movement around school buildings with students staying within
learning groups to reduce exposure, and will restrict after-school activities or the use of playground equipment.
The state recommends that each district develop plans for each of the three options, but whichever plan they choose as the semester starts, district leaders are aware that they might have to change course at any point if COVID-19 cases surge.
“If we open in one particular way and then conditions change because of cases then we have to be ready to transition,” Brewer Superintendent Gregg Palmer said. “I think the initial recommendation or initial plans are just the beginning of this discussion.”