Hampden Academy’s second-floor hallways were lined with desks and chairs, neatly stacked outside the classrooms from which they had been removed.
School officials in masks walked single-file through the hallways, into classrooms with the few remaining desks spaced 3 or 6 feet apart from each other.
They sat at or stood behind those desks, listening to teachers and school nurses walk them through how students would enter and leave the classrooms, and how teachers would move around while maintaining at least six feet of distance from students.
As schools across Maine and the country decide on the extent to which they’ll reopen their buildings, it’s clear that school is not going to look like it did before the COVID-19 pandemic. On Tuesday, a dozen Hampden-area school board members and other officials walked through three different school buildings to look at the major changes in store for students returning in person this fall.
Next week, the Regional School Unit 22 school board will vote on the reopening plan put together by school administrators.
“Our hope is that when we’re unveiling our plan, now there will be context for them to understand what we’re recommending in our plan,” Superintendent Regan Nickels said.
While the start of the school year is still a few weeks away, every classroom the school board members walked through already looked different. Some had desks spaced three feet apart, and some six feet apart.
Fewer than 10 students will be able to occupy most classrooms with desks spaced 6 feet apart from each other, and most classrooms with desks three feet apart would be able to accommodate no more than 15 students.
Nickels said she wanted school board members to see what both options look like before she presented the reopening plan, within which the exact distance will be finalized. Under state guidelines for reopening schools, students have to stay at least 3 feet from their classmates as long as they’re wearing face masks.
The spaced-out desks aren’t the only change in store. Students will also have to come in and leave the classroom in socially distanced, single-file lines. In a second-grade classroom at Leroy H. Smith School in Winterport, for example, multicolored star stickers on the carpeted floor mark where students can stand when they leave the room.
School meals will bring their own set of changes to the school day.
At Earl C. McGraw School in Hampden, Principal Jennifer Nickerson walked school board members through what will be a one-way entrance for students into the cafeteria. Benches will have stickers on them marking where students can sit, six feet apart from each other. The room will only hold 38 students at one time, and lunch will be split into five 20-minute blocks.
At Hampden Academy, high schoolers will sit at individual desks in the cafeteria instead of sitting in small groups at round cafeteria tables. The high school space that previously accommodated more than 200 students for lunch will now only serve 48 students at once.
On Tuesday, traveling between schools, school committee members experienced what a school bus ride will be like for students: masks on, every other seat occupied, each person sitting by the window to spread out as much as possible.
“The school bus ride was really interesting, because we’ve all loaded onto a school bus in our lives, and to have to do this in a new way brought up a lot of questions and built a lot of new understanding,” Nickels said.
Every RSU 22 school also has designated isolation rooms for students or staff who might be experiencing symptoms associated with COVID-19. At Hampden Academy, the isolation rooms are directly next to an exit, so anyone who is sick can leave without having to walk through the school building.
Schools do not have the ability to test students for COVID-19, said School Nurse Barbara Parent, but RSU 22 school nurses will recommend that families reach out to their primary care physician if they identify students with symptoms commonly linked to the coronavirus, and they’ll carry out contact tracing at school to identify the students’ close contacts.
That means a changed role for school nurses, who will deal with fewer minor complaints from students that prompt a visit to the nurse’s office.
“We’re going to limit the kind of visits we have down at the office,” Parent said.