A group of children frolic in the spraying water at the splash pad in Old Town on June 8, 2021. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / The Penobscot Times

While an early heat wave caused a number of eastern Maine schools to let out students early on Monday and Tuesday, others used an approach they’ve become familiar with during the COVID-19 pandemic to let the school day go on: remote learning.

The decision by three Bangor-area school districts to have students learn remotely could be a precursor for how administrators deal with extreme weather days even after the pandemic is over. Remote learning is now a viable option for district leaders faced with deciding whether to close school buildings, multiple superintendents said.

In Bangor, classes went remote on both Monday and Tuesday, as classroom pandemic restrictions compounded the heat’s harmful effects: the Maine Department of Education requires students to wear face coverings and restricts the use of fans to stop the spread of the coronavirus indoors.

Remote learning’s chief advantage was the continuity, said Bangor’s interim superintendent, Kathy Harris-Smedberg.

Most students “work very well with structure, continuity and understanding what to expect every day,” she said.

In addition, schools won’t have to make up lost days late into June, a time when student engagement can be lower, Harris-Smedberg said.

Bangor could use remote learning in place of extreme weather-related cancellations in the future, she said.

In fact, the Bangor School Committee originally hoped to use remote learning days exclusively in place of snow days this year, but that plan was scrapped after backlash from parents. The district then planned to limit snow cancellations to two days before switching to remote learning.

But those two cancellations didn’t ever occur, as the mild season only required one snow day for Bangor schools.

Not all schools changed their plans for the heat. Hampden-based Regional School Unit 22 students stayed in school, but with more mask breaks, an emphasis on hydration and some classroom activities outdoors, Superintendent Regan Nickels said.

“Finding shade and cool spots during outside learning as well as mask breaks and encouraging students to wear shorts and cool clothes has been helpful,” said Betsy Murphy, a teacher at Wagner Middle School in Winterport.

Nickels said her district would be less likely to employ virtual learning for extreme weather days in the coming years. She noted that severe weather can disrupt internet connections, and she said snow days provide a prime opportunity for students to get physical activity.

Brewer School Department Superintendent Gregg Palmer decided to have half-days on Monday and Tuesday because he said it was important to keep students with a form of in-person learning during the last days of a school year defined by so much remote learning.

“It’s been pretty disorienting for kids, very hard for them to keep their feet on the ground,” Palmer said. “It was good to have them together, even for a half-day. It was something the kids were happy to do.”

Not all parents agreed with the decision, he said, though he thought they understood students were released early for their safety.

Now that they have the infrastructure and training in place, remote learning days instead of cancellations will become an option in the next school year, Palmer said. Brewer would have more seriously considered a remote day had it not been so close to the end of the year.

One possible impediment to going remote instead of canceling school, he said, could be the disparities in internet access among students.

While other superintendents acknowledge such challenges, most saw several potential positives with the option of going remote.

Students in Newport-based RSU 19 attended class in person but then learned remotely on Tuesday. RSU 19 Superintendent Michael Hammer said it was an easy decision after seeing how hot it was for students on Monday, along with the masking restrictions.

“With the heat index today being a little bit more humid, we were just like, ‘We can’t do it two days in a row,’” Hammer said.

Hammer said few superintendents wanted to add days to their calendars, especially following a school year filled with numerous COVID-19 scheduling complexities.

Hammer said he’s hopeful that rising vaccination rates among K-12 students — 43 percent of those ages 12-19 had received at least one dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine as of Monday, according to state data — could allow for fewer restrictions next school year.

But, whatever next semester looks like, the ability to go remote rather than cancel school could be an important tool for years to come, Hammer said.

“If you started to mount a whole bunch of snow days, power delays or heat, you would probably want to have this to be able to knock off a few of those days,” he said.