Masked students do classwork for AP Biology at Brewer High School in this January 2021 photo. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

A new school year is underway in Maine, but classes have already been interrupted in many districts. Portland High School closed Tuesday because of two positive COVID-19 cases, and an elementary school in Arundel is moving remote until next week.

With a new surge across the state, some parents are calling for their district to once again offer full-time remote learning programs. But those options are few and far between as schools prioritize keeping students safe, while in school, this fall.

This story is part of our ongoing series “Making School Work”, where we’ll be documenting the experiences of students, parents, teachers and administrators as they return to the classroom in another school year full of rapid change. If you’d like to share your own stories with us, visit mainepublic.org/makingschoolwork.

For the past year and a half, Heather Hall Devoe of Biddeford has been rigorous in protecting her 67-year-old mother, who lives with her, from contracting COVID-19. Last year, she chose to have her 11-year-old son learn at home. But this fall, even as cases surge, Devoe’s school district has done away with that full-time remote learning option for her son.

“These kids are more at-risk now than they were a year ago,” Devoe said. “I don’t understand why they’re pushing them to be back in person.”

Devoe said she now feels stuck. Her son is still too young to qualify for a virtual charter school. And because she works, homeschooling seems out of reach.

“But I don’t even know where to start,” she said. “I’ve tried, and I’m lost.”

For now, Devoe is reluctantly sending her son back into the classroom. She is among several parents in Maine who say their schools have been too quick to alter or eliminate remote learning options that they say would offer some peace of mind.

The situation highlights the complicated balancing act that school officials are facing as they work to keep the community safe, but also make sure kids get an education.

“At-home learning does not work for all kids. And was super tough on our teachers. And our teachers did a fantastic job trying to do something that was very difficult,” said Biddeford Superintendent Jeremy Ray as he outlined his district’s situation at a recent school board meeting.

Ray said that only a handful of families expressed interest in remote learning this fall. Ray added that the district is prioritizing safe, in-person learning, with precautions that include masking and pooled testing.

“I want to see classrooms that are not focused on what’s sitting in front, here, but back in-person,” Ray said.

And many school officials said that even if there was more of a demand for remote options, they’re constrained by a labor shortage.

“To do that, we simply do not have enough staff to provide a full remote option, as a parent choice, to start the year,” said Lewiston Superintendent Jake Langlais.

Langlais said he would need up to 40 new staff members to provide remote learning. And as of late August, Langlais said his district still had more than 100 unfilled job openings.

Despite all of these challenges, some districts are offering limited online options, such as a remote learning “academy” in Portland for students who qualify for health accommodations. In western Maine, school officials have worked together to offer a regional remote program for about 100 students this fall.

And some schools are trying to reconfigure remote learning after finding out what didn’t work last year.

“So [teachers] were teaching not only their full remote students online with a screen, a little tablet — and then also the kids that were in person. And it was not successful for a lot of kids,” said Renita Ward-Downer, the director of instruction for the Brewer School Department.

Ward-Downer says many remote students were not engaged last year, and teachers struggled to balance in-person and online learning.

This year, the program has been re-imagined, with one full-time staff member assigned to nine students. And students will still have access to in-person options, to take part in clubs, sports and even some in-person classes if they want.

And while some of the students who’ve enrolled in remote learning this fall are doing so because of COVID-19, Ward-Downer said the program is also being designed as an alternative for students who may have struggled in a typical classroom setting.

“Their kids are anxious, and it’s very overwhelming to go into school full time. And so this is just a perfect mix of that for them,” Ward-Downer said.

But these kinds of programs are only available to certain students in select towns, so without many options, some parents have decided to withdraw their children completely.

In Farmingdale, former music teacher Deb Large says she has taken on the role of home schooling her three grandchildren, who are all under the age of 12 and awaiting eligibility for vaccination by the Food and Drug Administration.

“We only have four months to go, maybe, until they’re fully vaccinated. And why jump it right now? You know, no one can convince me that there’s a good reason to do that,” Large said.

Large said she’s thankful that she has both the time and experience to teach the kids at home. But she worries about other families in Maine who may have no other choice but to send their kids to school as the virus surges across the state.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.