Challenges lie ahead for return to in-person learning

ELLSWORTH — A push from School Board Vice Chairwoman Abby Miller to prepare the district for five-day in-person learning, especially for students most at risk of falling behind academically, met with support and concerns as the board met Feb. 9.

While current state guidelines remain in place, positive COVID-19 case numbers are steadily falling, and Superintendent Dan Higgins suggested that changes may come from the Department of Education.

“As those [numbers] go [down], what we’re looking at is, are there going to be a relaxing of restrictions?” he said.

Miller prefers not to wait, suggesting the district begin planning now.

“We just can’t sit back and wait for the state,” she said. “We have seniors who are about to make the biggest mistake of their life. They’re about to fail or drop out.”

Earlier, high school Principal Dan Clifford had reported that despite a rise in student attendance and performance since January, many students still struggle, and some seniors are at risk of not graduating.

“There’s a lot more kids in jeopardy this year than in previous years by far,” Clifford said.

“How do we work in somebody going five days a week who desperately needs to?” Chairwoman Jennifer Alexander asked. Higgins said he thought those conversations were happening at the state level.

“I think as a district we should be having those conversations now,” Miller said, and Alexander agreed.

Many elementary and middle school students are also struggling under the remote and hybrid learning models, Ellsworth Elementary-Middle School principals April Clifford (K-4) and Erica Gabbianelli (5-8) reported, but there are many bright spots, too. 

“I think the skills and perseverance they’re learning will carry them through,” Gabbianelli said. “Some real important lessons are happening for my students and how they’re responding.”

Keeping in frequent contact with remote students and their parents makes a significant difference in student attendance, all three principals said.

“We’ve had a lot of success with those meetings,” said April Clifford. “There’s been some challenges … but the communication with the home has never been better.”

Dan Clifford noted that 25 EHS students have improved their attendance and grades enough to now be eligible for extracurricular activities such as sports, and grades, in general, were going up.

But returning even a dozen academically at-risk students to full-time, in-person instruction raised concerns from April Clifford because of staffing issues, something the district has been struggling with all school year.

“At this current time today, I just can’t do that,” she said. “I’m just being flat-out honest right now.” 

Meanwhile, at Hancock County Technical Center, 61 students have returned to five days a week in-person attendance, Principal Amy Boles said. The school can maintain the current health and safety guidelines because of its half-day schedule, staggered class times and “no mingling in the hallways.”

In addition, 123 students are now attending every day, whether remote or in person, something Boles said was needed for students to accrue required training hours in their field of study.

“We certainly have attendance issues,” she said. “Traditionally we see if they’re not attending at their high school, they’re not attending here either.” 

Anne Berleant

Anne Berleant

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
News Reporter Anne Berleant covers news and features in Ellsworth, Mariaville, Otis, Amherst, Aurora, Great Pond and Osborn. When not reporting, find her hiking local trails, reading or watching professional tennis. Email her at [email protected]

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