Jennifer Cyr wore a bright pink blouse and lime green pants so kids would be able to easily identify their principal as they arrived at the George B. Weatherbee School on their yellow school buses around 8:30 a.m. Tuesday morning. She greeted kids by name as she welcomed them to the Hampden school’s first day of the 2021-22 school year.
“Don’t forget, you can take a little break from your masks when you’re outside,” she told a handful of third graders who had lined up along the brick wall outside the school, wearing a colorful plethora of face coverings.
She handed out blue surgical masks to two kids whose gaiters didn’t comply with the requirement that masks loop over the ears.
“When kids come, we’re back to normal,” Cyr said. “It was a lonely summer.”
Tuesday marked the return to in-person classes five days a week at the Hampden school for the first time since the March 2020 start of the pandemic. Opening day also came about a week after a heated, district-wide debate over mask wearing concluded, with Regional School Unit 22’s board adopting a mask requirement for students days after a mask-optional policy passed only because of a mistabulated vote.
As a result, the 300-odd third, fourth and fifth graders who attend Weatherbee will be back in classrooms with their teachers, sans social distancing, but wearing masks. Students, teachers and staff will need to wear masks when they’re not eating or outside. Remote learning will only be an option for students who need to quarantine due to COVID-19 exposure.
Other measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 will be in place in addition to masking. Break periods will be staggered, allowing each grade to have 30 minutes for recess and then a 25-minute lunch period afterward to limit the number of students gathering in a single place. The school also purchased 300 new tables that can be broken apart into individual desks to allow for distancing if needed, Cyr said.
Older students in RSU 22 — students in grades 7-12, who are eligible to be vaccinated — will need to wear masks whenever there is a “high” or “substantial” level of COVID transmission locally. Currently, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers both Penobscot and Waldo counties — where RSU 22 has schools — as areas with high transmission.
Masking has been found to significantly slow the spread of COVID-19 in schools, allowing the return to an almost normal school year, Director of Wellness Brittany Layman said.
“The next few weeks will be telling, to see if we can keep it contained,” she said.
Layman noted that COVID continues to spread in the community. Penobscot County has been one of Maine’s virus hot spots in recent weeks, and nearby Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor has seen its intensive care unit nearing capacity in recent days.
“In the next three months, it’ll be important for us as a state to see how it actually impacts our kids,” she said. “Do our kids get sick, or do they not? Our goal as a district is to protect our community.”
Weatherbee will start a pool testing program next week that allows kids who opt in to get tested weekly, providing data showing how many COVID cases are in school, Layman said.
Despite concerns raised at RSU 22 school board meetings that it would be hard to enforce mask compliance, Abby Marvin’s fifth graders kept their face coverings on as the teacher led them through their morning meeting. Students discussed what they did over the summer and how excited they felt to start a new year while sitting next to one another in a circle on a rug in the classroom.
For the first week of school, teachers will lead such morning meetings and other team-building exercises to foster a sense of community among students, third-grade teacher Erin Adams said.
“I’m just excited that we all can be back together,” she said. “I can already tell that I have a very caring group.”
Another focus will be on monitoring students’ social and emotional health as they transition back to school, Cyr said. Attendance is a key marker in tracking that.
“For some students, they have great social skills, and others are shy, so we need to make sure they’re connected,” Cyr said. “We’re really trying to make sure that we are responsive to kids’ needs.”