ELLSWORTH — Partway through the Ellsworth City Council’s emergency meeting Sunday the primary question of the day was answered: Ellsworth schools will be closing at the end of the day Monday.
The news came via a parent in the audience who received a digital communication from school Superintendent Dan Higgins.
“Based on continued monitoring of the evolving situation, including information received from the medical and scientific community, and ongoing communication with local and state partners, and discussion with other Hancock County school system superintendents, it is critical that our school department take appropriate action to in response to the help prevent spread of the virus,” Higgins wrote in his letter. “To that effect, Ellsworth Department Schools will be closed to students beginning with the end of school on Monday March 16, 2020. Schools will be closed through Friday, April 3, 2020. There will be no after-school activities Monday.”
“While we acknowledge the impact and hardship, this is a public health emergency that warrants closure of our schools,” Higgins added.
School will be in session Monday, March 16 so that students may retrieve any personal belongings and medication and receive information regarding possible remote and distance education opportunities.
“There is no expectation of remote and distance learning through Friday, March 20,” wrote Higgins. “Our intent is to finalize plans and expectations for those activities and to update you by the end of next week.”
Because less than 50 percent of the student body is eligible for free and reduced breakfast and lunch, Higgins said Ellsworth is ineligible for funding to provide meals during the closure. He said the district has requested a waiver of that rule from the Department of Education.
The superintendent’s absence from Sunday’s Council meeting drew frustrated comments from some councilors and members of the audience.
“Where is he to give these answers?” asked resident Robert Walsh, after questioning why Ellsworth schools had not yet been closed.
Councilor Marc Blanchette said he was “very disappointed” that Higgins did not attend.
Councilors agreed that early notice would help parents to plan for alternative childcare.
Higgins reached out to City Manager David Cole during the meeting to inform him that his reason for not attending was that he was in emergency meetings to discuss the closure.
Council Chairman Dale Hamilton said Sunday afternoon’s Council meeting was convened to share with the public the city’s response to the coronavirus. He said the city wants to act as a conduit for useful, “fact-based” information about the virus.
“We do not need to panic, but we do need to plan,” Hamilton said.
Staff explained some of the city’s precautions, including limiting public access to City Hall and requesting residents conduct more business online or by phone. City Hall’s doors will be locked during business hours. Visitors may use a phone at the Church Street residence to talk with staff, who may go outside to assist them. There will be a drop box for payments and communications.
Police will be handling more complaints by phone when possible and prioritizing issuing summons over making arrests, which require physical contact.
The Fire Department is trying to obtain medical-grade N95 facial masks, but Chief Richard Tupper noted that current demand has made the masks virtually impossible to get.
City councilors emphasized the need for individuals in the community to work together and look out for the vulnerable.
In a reference to the empty shelves in many stores, Councilor Michelle Kaplan noted, “Toilet paper is not what you need for this virus. You need Robitusson, Tylenol and facial tissues.”
The Down East Family YMCA had previously announced that it would close its two Ellsworth childcare centers and fitness center if the Ellsworth schools closed.
YMCA CEO Peter Farragher attended Sunday afternoon’s emergency Council meeting. He said the Y’s facilities would close at the end of the day Monday. The childcare programs serve roughly 200 families. Families will not be charged for childcare during the closure.
The extended closure may be the greatest challenge the local YMCA has ever faced, Farragher said. The YMCA’s childcare facilities generate over half of the Y’s operating revenue, he said. The nonprofit employs 148 people.
Local small businesses, especially restaurants, are already struggling after seeing a substantial drop in business since last Monday, said Gretchen Wilson, executive director of the Ellsworth Area Chamber of Commerce.
Asked whether many of the area’s small businesses could survive a virtual pause in ordinary business for a month, she answered, “Frankly, no.”
She said local restaurants, already subject to strict hygiene practices, have stepped up their efforts to reassure nervous customers.
“The comment was ‘we’re cleaner than your homes,'” she said of feedback from restaurant owners.