ELLSWORTH — As the state’s COVID-19 numbers fall and vaccination rates rise, School Board members moved to bring some students back full-time and fully remote students into the hybrid model as soon as in two weeks.
“When you look at the capacity we have, based on the current health and safety requirements we could certainly accommodate all the remote students,” Superintendent Dan Higgins said at the board’s March 9 meeting. “The challenge comes in the specific classes.”
The board discussion followed a parent meeting with Chairwoman Jennifer Alexander and Higgins on returning students to school on Feb. 16. This meeting was held before Governor Janet Mills announced phased-in higher capacities for gatherings and businesses starting March 26.
“Obviously, things have started to change quite a bit,” Higgins said.
The elementary, middle and high schools are all operating below capacity under the current state guidelines, although some specific grades and classes are full. Capacity is based on the schools maintaining a full 6-foot distance between students. The state requires a minimum of 3 feet between students and more distance while eating. Higgins explained that because the cafeteria cannot accommodate students with the 6-foot distance, students are eating at their homeroom desks, so the 6-foot distance is maintained schoolwide.
“We have let this sit long enough,” Vice Chairwoman Abby Miller said. “We may have to be creative where some kids eat lunch. Maybe this is where we start.”
Detailed information is needed before the district can bring more students into classrooms. Principals will provide specific student numbers in grades and classrooms, while the board will send out a brief parent survey by Friday, March 12, to gauge how many fully remote or hybrid students would be interested in returning to in-person learning; whether transportation would be needed; and, if interested, if families could manage a few more weeks of remote or hybrid learning to allow at-risk students to return first. The board also will form a committee for the phased-in re-entry plan that will include board members, teachers, parents, principals and administrators.
Determining which students are most at risk is subjective, Higgins noted.
“Child care, special needs, academics, social-emotional [issues] — each of you could argue that that’s a critical piece,” he said. “Not everyone is going to end up happy.”
Alexander said the students most at risk of not graduating or not being advanced to the next grade should be the first to return. Currently, about 18 percent of high school students are failing at least one grade, Principal Dan Clifford said, a slight drop from last month. Absence rates vary across the schools but up to one-fifth of students may not attend on their remote days.
Transportation is another challenge, especially as two drivers are on leave until mid-April. And staff shortages may also come into play if more students return, elementary school Principal April Clifford said.
“We need to be thinking outside the box,” Alexander said. “I think we would be doing a huge disservice to our students if we weren’t acting [quickly].”