SULLIVAN — As the buses rolled up to the K-eighth grade Peninsula School early Tuesday morning, Roxanne Renwick had been looking forward to welcoming and shepherding her masked pupils into the spic-and-span building. In her homey classroom, the kindergarten teacher planned to read aloud Laurie Isop’s “How Do You Hug a Porcupine?” to teach young children how to socially distance and be safe. Her experience weaving diverse topics from hygiene to kindness into lessons spans 35 years.
Renwick is among Regional School Unit 24’s faculty and staff who resumed teaching Sept. 8 at Sumner Memorial High School and the K-eighth grade Cave Hill, Ella Lewis, Mountain View and Peninsula schools. Only a few educators were unable to return for the 2020-21 school year. None of the RSU 24 schools have pre-K programs this year.
“I am not nervous about starting,” the longtime educator said late last week. “I have been blessed with a strong administration and team of colleagues working together to be prepared the best we can.
“We may not have all the solutions for every situation, but we are ready to be flexible and team-oriented to do the best for our students and our community.”
At RSU 24’s four K-eighth grade schools, kindergartners and other students arriving by bus were required to wear face masks during the ride. While siblings are allowed to sit together, the rest of the children each had a seat to themselves and are grouped depending on their developmental level from back to front in buses. Drivers are shielded by plexiglass barriers. While the weather is warm, some bus windows will be open to spur airflow.
Like Sumner Memorial High School, the four elementary-middle schools began the 2020-21 school year under a hybrid learning model. A total of 103 students elected to take classes entirely from home. Some students attend school in person Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday. They study remotely the other three days. Others physically go to school Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. All students attend school from home on Wednesdays.
Wednesdays differ in format from the other remote learning days. Students first check in online with their homeroom or advisory teacher. Attendance is taken. Teachers will work with their pupils on social and emotional learning skills (SEL). SEL skills help students regulate their emotions, express themselves and cooperate and communicate with others. The weekly sessions are intended to equip students with skills, resources and strategies to improve their academic work and enhance their lives. There also will be time to complete homework assigned the previous day or work one-on-one with a teacher on a particular skill.
On Wednesdays, RSU 24 students’ school day ends at 11:30 a.m. Afterward, the elementary-middle schools’ teachers will make use of the rest of the day to confer, share ideas and further refine their online teaching techniques and strategies. The schools’ custodial staffs will have more time to thoroughly clean facilities mid-week, in accordance with extensive protocols set by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The hybrid schedule has allowed us to thin out schools’ populations [on any given day] so we can adhere to the guidelines,” RSU 24 Superintendent Michael Eastman said last week. “Unfortunately, some of those things that make classrooms homey had to be removed” in order to space students apart.
At all RSU 24’s schools, rented tents are erected outdoors to give students a “mask break.” Administrators and teachers are working together to determine how long the breaks are for and to ensure social distancing. Outdoor recess is still being held and play equipment is being cleaned, according to Eastman.
On in-person learning days, schools serve pre-packaged food and beverages to students spread out from each other in the cafeteria or gym. For remote learners, breakfast and lunch will be delivered by bus on Mondays and Wednesdays. For the following weeks, those meal orders must be placed online via rsu24.org by the previous Wednesday.
Late last week, Eastman learned the U.S. Department of Agriculture is extending its free meal program, including breakfast and lunch, through Dec. 31. He said all enrolled RSU 24 students qualify for the free meals regardless of their income. To sign up for the “Free Meals for Kids” program, the superintendent recommended parents contact their school’s principal. He said home-schoolers do not qualify for the program.
Last spring, inequities surfaced among RSU 24 students’ access to broadband internet and quality of service at home. A limited number of Wi-Fi hot spots are being made available to certain households whose geographic location and other factors disrupt or make online learning impossible.
“We are aware some families are in need of a hot spot,” Eastman said. “We will make sure everyone has what they need.”