ELLSWORTH — Students in Ellsworth schools will have a choice of fully remote instruction or returning to school in person part-time this fall, the Ellsworth School Board decided on Tuesday at a meeting that stretched for nearly five hours. Families will need to decide on their choice by Friday, Aug. 14, and staff planned to start making phone calls on Wednesday to determine final preferences.
“Eighty percent of our families want to have their kids in school,” said Ellsworth School Department Superintendent Dan Higgins, referring to results of a nonbinding survey the department conducted earlier in the year.
But, under current conditions, it simply isn’t possible for the department to follow health and safety guidelines and have all students who want to return to the classroom there five days per week, Higgins said.
The hybrid model outlined on Tuesday splits students into two groups that will alternate days in school, with the maroon group in buildings on Mondays and Wednesdays, and the gray group in buildings on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Groups will switch off being in the classroom on Fridays. Household members and siblings will be in the same groups and in school on the same day, to minimize child care and transportation complications for families.
The hybrid model is being proposed to start the year, staff and Higgins explained, in part because there isn’t enough physical space to have everyone who wants to return to school full time in the building five days per week. While staff may conduct activities outside when the weather cooperates, adding more space, such as renting “pods,” also would require more staff time to clean those pods.
“It’s not everybody in school all five days every week,” said Higgins, “but it’s more days in school than not.”
The plan passed 4-1 after presentation and questions that lasted four hours, with board member Jennifer Alexander opposed. Alexander, who became emotional as she explained her reasoning, said she made her decision “without any disrespect” to those who developed the plans, but said she wanted to be the voice for families who wanted to go back to school in-person, full-time.
“We have a large amount of our community that is still concerned about going hybrid,” said Alexander. “This isn’t personal towards these people who have worked really hard. It’s a tough decision for all of us involved.”
School Board members also voted to move the start of the school year back a week, to Sept. 8.
“Those choosing a hybrid model may change to a full remote at any time,” said Higgins, but those who choose remote won’t be able to switch to the hybrid model mid-semester or trimester, because it would involve adding a student to a group. Groups should be announced by midweek next week.
For those who do go back to the classroom, it will look quite a bit different: students will be expected to wear masks at all times (except when eating or during scheduled mask breaks) and bring everything they need with them. Students who have behavioral or medical issues may be able to use face shields as an alternative. There will be no lockers or water fountains (refillable bottles will be allowed), lunch breaks will be at desks spaced 6 feet apart, and no, you can’t go to virtual class in your pajamas: students learning remotely will still have to follow dress codes.
There will still be recess, but it will be in cohorts and physically distanced, and children will have to wear masks. Staff are looking into whether recess could be combined with a mask break, Higgins said.
“Mask breaks are going to be really critical,” said Ellsworth Middle School Principal Erica Gabbianelli. “We are absolutely scheduling those in.”
There was not much new to discuss on the transportation front on Tuesday, said Higgins, as what that looks like depends on the number of students who plan to ride the bus, which isn’t yet known.
Students who do ride the bus will have to be masked and sit in alternating seats and in alternating aisles, resulting in roughly 20-21 students per bus. Members of the same household will be able to ride in the same seat.
Administrators, mindful of the challenges faced by families this spring, stressed that the remote learning would look very different in the coming months.
“The remote learning experience is going to be vastly different and more clearly defined than it was last spring,” said Higgins. There will be fewer platforms to navigate, and cameras and screens are being installed in the back of classrooms so students who are in class remotely can participate in discussion.
The board received a flood of comments during the meeting, many of them from parents wondering why some school districts, such as Bangor, are able to bring some students back to classrooms for five days each week. Several commenters noted that some districts are using a 3-foot distancing requirement, rather than a 6-foot one.
“We’re making a statement saying that at 3 feet we can’t safely move about the classroom,” said Alexander. “Then how is everybody else making that work?”
The comments were largely in relation to a section of the reopening framework presented by the Maine Department of Education that reads: “Adults must maintain 6 feet of distance from others to the extent possible. Maintaining 3 feet of distance is acceptable between and among students when combined with the other measures outlined in this list of safety requirements. Six feet of physical distancing is required for students while eating breakfast and lunch, as students will be unable to wear masks at that time.”
Higgins said that “Maintaining 6-foot gives you the opportunity to get to 3-foot if you need, if you can’t meet other requirements.” Spacing desks 6 feet apart, for instance, allows a teacher to pass between desks with 3 feet of space. “It’s not based on philosophical preference,” he said.
Addressing child-care concerns, Higgins said he has been in conversation with the director of the Down East Family YMCA, Peter Farragher, who has indicated that there may be spaces for students in grades K-8, with payment on a per-day, rather than per-week basis.
Like everything in the COVID era, plans are subject to change depending on updated guidance.
Families that did not respond to the initial survey or would like to change their preference are asked to contact their child’s school by the end of the day on Friday.
“I know in my heart that everybody thinks they’re going to walk through the door and it’s going to be comparable to how they left in March, and it’s not,” said board Chairwoman Brenda Thomas. “There is no way it can be comparable. It’s going to be very, very different.”
“It’s a hard pill to swallow,” she continued, but, “When you sit back and you look at the safety of our staff and our students we’re doing what’s right.”