The Orono Middle School is pictured in this 2018 photo. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

ORONO, Maine — An RSU 26 plan to bring more students back to school full time has some parents and teachers worrying that administrators are moving too quickly and without adequate community involvement as the coronavirus threat grows in Maine.

The plan brought its first wave of students back to school on Monday morning with the re-introduction of third-, seventh- and 12th-graders for consistent in-person classes.

Orono falls under Penobscot County’s “green” safety rating from the Maine Department of Education, meaning schools have relatively low risks of infection spread and may do full in-person instruction as long as they’re following safety guidelines.

A majority of its students are doing hybrid instruction or fully remote instruction, RSU 26 Superintendent Meredith Higgins said.

But the pandemic’s unpredictable nature compounded by varied community support for returning to the classrooms have proved challenging as the district plans its next steps.

“People are uncomfortable — maybe with change right now — and it’s certainly understandable,” Higgins said. “I just know this is a year that we’re going to have to change quite a bit.”

The plan — which is expected to add 15-20 students from various grades to each of Orono’s three schools in separate phases through January — is a cautious approach that can be adjusted based on how the pandemic progresses, Higgins said.

A total of 139 new coronavirus cases were reported Tuesday, surpassing Saturday’s previous record of the highest single-day jump in new cases. Another 102 new cases were recorded Wednesday, and 163 on Thursday.

Kristina Weaver, who has three children in Orono schools, likes the idea of gradually shifting more students to full-time instruction, but said she was surprised by how quickly the plan is supposed to happen.

“I really question the timing of [the district] beginning the phases,” she said. Weaver said she’s also concerned for her seventh-grader, who has already become comfortable with her current routine.

“I don’t know how much more I can introduce before I’m putting [too much strain on her],” Weaver said. “It’s a lot of things happening at once.

Under the district’s new plan, most grades will have the option of in-person classes four or five days a week. Some grades, such as high school, will still have fully remote and hybrid learning options, while others — including third, seventh and eighth grades — won’t.

The district is expected to come out with a plan for re-introducing fourth and fifth grades later this month.

Approximately 199 of the district’s 806 students were already doing full-time instruction, according to RSU 26 data. Another 607 students were either in a hybrid model or fully remote as of last month.

Earlier this year, the district conducted a survey of parents of hybrid students in nine grades to find out what their preferred mode of instruction would be for October to November — between fully in-person, fully remote or hybrid.

Parents in all grades consistently preferred to do the fully in-person option, results showed.

“For some families it maybe feels too fast but for 60-90 percent of our families, it really is the right time,” Higgins said of the survey.

Some parents assert that the survey — which was conducted about a month before Maine began to see a significant uptick in COVID-19 cases — doesn’t accurately represent how comfortable families are now with potentially sending their children back to school full-time.

“Of course everyone’s preference is to have in-person instruction,” Orono parent Jason Langley said. “I just feel like adding more students now while this is happening … it’s just a bad idea. There needs to be a little more caution applied to these decisions … These are our kids we’re talking about here.”

Orono teachers also expressed similar concerns in a separate district survey last month — specifically how soon the district wanted to implement new changes.

The survey asked staff to rate on a scale of one to five — one representing “strongly disagree” and five meaning “strongly agree” — the different options for adding more students to classrooms.

The average response to whether more students should be brought back for in-person learning during the current semester was 2.1 out of 5.

One district staff member — who requested anonymity out of fear of retribution — said that it feels like the district is trying to create a sense of normalcy where there isn’t any by bringing more students back.

The staff member also raised concerns with the plan to address students crowding in the hallways and the school buildings’ aging ventilation systems.

Higgins said that roughly 15-20 extra students will be added to each school building in phases, which seemed more manageable. The district is also doing work to upgrade the ventilation system and is adding air purifiers to all the spaces, she said.

Still, the district’s plan remains at the mercy of the pandemic.

In a note to families last week, Higgins wrote that she wasn’t sure the district will “be able to continue with future phases of adding more students to full-time attendance unless the [coronavirus case] trends improve.”

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