ELLSWORTH — A plan to return K-12 students to full-time, in-person instruction found School Board approval on March 31, and many students and parents will embrace a return to normalcy.
For those students and families who would not welcome a five-day-a-week return, whether from safety concerns or because the student is thriving in remote learning, the plan has leeway for them.
“If you don’t feel safe sending your child to school with the 3-feet social distancing, you do have another option,” board member Elizabeth Alteri said. “We’re not leaving them in the dark.”
The re-entry plan was based on a survey sent to all families and revised Department of Education and Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for in-person learning, funneled through a re-entry committee that included administrators, staff members, parents and board members.
For high school students, full time in-person instruction will begin April 26, following April vacation. However, students may still opt for the hybrid or fully remote option.
Students must maintain a 3-foot distance except for meals, when the distance increases to 6 feet. To accommodate this, half of the gymnasium may have to be transformed into a cafeteria, Principal Dan Clifford said. “PE can use the other half. As the weather gets better, they’re outside all the time anyway.”
Of the 510 enrolled high school students, 63 prefer to remain fully remote and 59 in the hybrid model, according to survey results. “The rest are planning to come back five days a week,” Clifford said.
The middle school students will return in a phased-in approach, with eighth-graders returning the week of April 12. Fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders will return at different times following April vacation, which ends April 23.
Students may elect to learn fully remotely, but no hybrid model will be offered. The same is true for elementary students, where fourth-graders will first return the week of April 12, with remaining grades phased after vacation.
“The majority of staff understand, though they may not like it,” middle school Principal Erica Gabbianelli said. While acknowledging that “eliminating the hybrid may be hard on families,” she said teachers “can handle full-time remote and in-person, but not all three.”
“The survey supports that [model],” elementary Principal April Clifford added. “Once you’ve made your choice, you have to stay in it for the year.” Clifford also said she needed some staff positions filled for full-time in-person learning.
Public comments supported the re-entry plan but, as administrators did, said it could be hard on students, just as school has been during the pandemic.
“This has been a long, hard year, we all feel it,” K-3 librarian Jamie Reed said. She asked the board to pass the re-entry plan, noting that for teachers, this means getting vaccinated, washing hands and social distancing.
But in her own comment, parent Annie Atherton said the discussions did not address student safety, noting the survey only asked if parents wanted their children to safely return to school. “This did not state that safety means vaccinated teachers. Vaccinated teachers means nothing to kids.”
But the re-entry plan is aligned with current state guidelines, Chairwoman Jennifer Alexander said.
“The risk at that [younger] age is extremely low,” she said. “Not only is it not only extremely low for contracting the virus but for spreading it to adults. We have to keep that under consideration going forward and I think we all have.”
Becky Faulkner, 504 Coordinator at Hancock County Technical Center, pointed out the sudden change for students, especially those with anxiety and depression, both conditions that may have increased in severity during the past year.
“The mental and emotional health of students should really be taken into consideration,” she said.
Board Vice Chairwoman Abby Miller said: “This is us making a plan. Everything is fluid. Everything is subject to what’s going on with COVID that day.”