(From left) Ellsworth School Board members Paul Markosian, Muneer Hasham and Elizabeth Alteri and Chairwoman Kelly McKenney discuss back-to-school plans at an Aug. 3 workshop. Vice Chairwoman Abigail Miller attended remotely. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTO BY ANNE BERLEANT

City school board to vote on fall plans

ELLSWORTH — Superintendent Dan Higgins laid out options for a back-to-school plan Aug. 3 under continuing pandemic conditions that he acknowledged can change without warning. The School Board held the workshop prior to its Aug. 12 vote on a plan. At that time, board members will vote on how and where students will learn, a face mask policy and testing and screening options.

The emphasis during the near two-hour discussion was that instruction will be in-person, five days a week, with no remote learning option offered except for students with qualifying individual education plans.

“We’re leaning to maximize the model where everyone’s in school five days a week,” Higgins said.

Teacher and parent survey responses from all three schools strongly pointed to this, and the board discussed health and safety precautions to support full in-person instruction.

COVID-19 vaccinations will not be required for students and staff eligible to receive one, Higgins said. But with the state announcing on July 28 that schools must report vaccination rates among students and staff, how the district will fulfill this requirement is yet to be worked out.

With the civil emergency lifted, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Department of Education guidelines are recommendations, not requirements, leaving the final say up to school districts. The only state-required mask-wearing is on public transportation — so students and staff must mask up on the school bus.

The Maine CDC guidelines recommend masks in schools when inside, regardless of vaccination status. It also recommends 3 feet of physical distance — but not if that means students cannot return to in-person learning. Screening, testing, hand-washing and other preventive measures should continue, along with monitoring community transmission rates, and quarantines and contact tracing if a positive case appears among the school community.

Higgins will draft a plan for a board vote based on the workshop discussions, which outlined indoor mask options for schools: optional masks, required masks and masks when in high-traffic areas such as hallways or cafeteria lines. Members also floated the possibility of having students start the school year with a mask requirement and then relaxing it, unless positivity and transmission rates rise.

Board member and Jackson Lab infectious disease research scientist Muneer Hasham offered the option of requiring masks in high-traffic areas, and also recommended masks for all the unvaccinated.

“I’ve studied viruses for decades,” he said. “None of us in the medical community knows what will happen next. We’re scratching our heads.”

He and board member Paul Markosian also advocated pool testing, where a percentage of a classroom population is tested and if any are positive, full testing is done along with other required mitigation measures. Parents must consent for students to participate, and students would administer their own nasal swab test.

Board Vice Chairwoman Abby Miller was not convinced.

“We need a lot more information here,” she said. “What happens to that classroom [with a positive test]? What happens to those kids?”

The board is scheduled to vote on its plan on Thursday, Aug. 12, at 6 p.m. in the City Council chambers. The meeting will be streamed live on the Ellsworth School Department YouTube channel and Spectrum Channel 1303.

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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