As schools look to the fall semester, they face the prospect of substantial costs to modify their buildings, and to replace a fifth of staff members who are unlikely to return to school buildings because health conditions or their age put them at special risk from COVID-19. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

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While Maine colleges and universities plan to test many students and staff as they reopen their campuses this fall, the same scale of testing is unlikely in the state’s public schools.

Education Commissioner Pender Makin said recently in an interview with the Bangor Daily News that such testing could offer a false sense of security because, unlike on a college campus, students return to their homes and communities every day where they can be exposed to the virus even after testing negative.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that schools test students and staff who show symptoms of COVID-19 or suspect they have been exposed to the virus.

Coronavirus testing is one consideration on the minds of school leaders, staff and parents as they look toward the fall reopening of schools — whether that reopening involves a full return to school buildings or arrangements that involve both in-person and remote learning.

Other considerations include the substantial expected costs of safely reopening school buildings and the expectation that a fifth of school staff members are unlikely to return to school buildings this fall because health conditions or their age put them at risk of complications from the coronavirus.

Despite the costs of reopening, Makin said, “there is nothing that can replicate the rich experience of being at school in person and learning in a cohort of peers.” Reopening involves balancing the risk of the coronavirus to students, school employees and their families with the risk to students of not being able to physically attend school, she said.

Maine Department of Education Commissioner Pender Makin Credit: Courtesy of MDOE

Makin spoke with the BDN about reopening decisions and challenges schools will face as they prepare for the fall semester. Her responses are below, lightly edited for length and clarity.

School districts had varying approaches to remote learning last semester. So as districts make reopening plans, are you concerned about disparities in opportunity from district to district?

One of the hardest balancing acts we have as a public education system in Maine is that balance between local control and equity. It’s an irresolvable problem, because each community has different levels of resources and they have different levels of support for their education systems. Children can’t impact where they’re born and where they’re being raised. And you have unfortunately a situation with disproportionate impact, both positive and negative, in a local control system. What we can do as a department to mitigate that and encourage districts is to consider more equitable and more robust services wherever possible.

Thousands of students’ lack of internet access was noted by the state to cause the biggest inequities when schools went remote. With the devices the state worked to procure, and fundraising school districts like Bangor did, most schools now have some degree of internet access for all students. If students have to learn remotely this fall, will that internet access continue and be sufficient?

It will continue, yes. Sufficient? Well, we’ve remained committed as a department to keeping access available for all students. But that said, there are certain places in Maine where there is absolutely no cellular data nor broadband coverage. We’re right now trying to find who those students are and see if there’s some other creative, innovative way to reach them. It’s almost a humanitarian crisis when students lose access to their peers and their educators. It’s critically important at this point in our state to find ways to make internet access available for all students who need it.

As the state prepares to distribute federal funds to defray the costs of reopening, what do you expect school districts will spend most of the money on? Staffing? Building modifications? Buses?

Schools are going to need support with their facilities, like breaking apart a large space into a couple of classrooms where students can be spread out, renovating or installing ventilation systems, or fixing windows so that fans could be placed in them to increase airflow.

There’s going to be a dire need for additional capacity for transporting kids in a safe way.

We also know that lunch programs are going to be offered differently, which means they can’t put everybody in the cafeteria at the same time safely. So there will be a need for carts that can keep meals warm or cold to meet standards of the health inspectors. Schools are going to need additional staff members to be able to make meals simultaneously available to students in the building, and to students learning remotely through delivery or meal sites.

All of those modifications are going to cost money, and these are all things that need to be set up before school starts in the fall. When school starts there are going to be additional costs.

Will districts need more teachers, more custodians? What will be the staffing needs, and are enough people available to fill those jobs?

We are likely to have over 20 percent of all school staff — that’s teachers, bus drivers, education technicians and custodians — unable to be physically present in the school setting due to pre-existing conditions and/or age factors that would put them in a high-risk group. So that’s going to be a massive cost in terms of substitutes and contracted services to replace staff members who are unable to be there, and that’s assuming we can find the people.

We’re exploring innovative ways to support training and recruitment statewide for people who would be interested in getting their bus driver certifications and/or be trained as substitutes.

What is the contingency plan if additional federal relief for schools doesn’t come through?

I can’t imagine what else we have. There are options through the Federal Emergency Management Agency for school districts to access emergency funding, but that’s a very finite pool and also quite limited. There’s also a little bit of funding through CARES Act K-12 funds that came through the Title I formula for [low-income] schools.

But that’s not enough to do the heavy lifting of continuing to support the increased need for staff members and contracted services and safety equipment and the additional cleaning and sanitizing that will have to be done.

So I’m sad to say that we are relentlessly exploring every possibility to allow us to support schools in this unprecedented and challenging task ahead. But we really are going to be counting on an additional federal relief package for the continuation of these services long term.

Maine colleges and universities have laid out plans to test students and staff when they return to campus. Will school districts be given the same capacity, and how would that work?

Currently it’s not medically advisable to use coronavirus testing on day-school students and staff, because they all go home every day and interact with families and the community.

As it stands with day schools, the worst case is that a student tests negative, providing a false sense of security, and goes home and becomes infected in their community or family setting and comes back to school with people assuming that it’s safe to be closer to the student.