ELLSWORTH — Some students may return to classrooms in Ellsworth in the fall, but those classrooms (and the ride to and from them) will likely look very different from the ones they were required to leave in such a hurry in March.
There are three scenarios school administrators and staff are looking at, said Ellsworth School Department Superintendent Dan Higgins at a virtual meeting on Tuesday evening. While administrators are hoping to have a plan in place by Aug. 1, he cautioned that it could change depending on how the science or guidance evolves.
The first (and the ideal) would be “a full return to in-person instruction under pre-COVID-19 conditions.” While that’s where everyone would like to be, said Higgins, “At this point in time the guidance is not saying that we can do that.”
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Maine Department of Education (DOE) issued an updated framework on Monday aimed at helping administrators decide to what extent it’s safe to reopen schools in the fall.
The framework gives schools options based on their risk factors and how well they are able to follow guidelines for cleaning, physical distancing and communication.
The second option being considered, said Higgins, is to have all students and staff back in the buildings while complying fully with federal and state recommendations.
“The driving question is can we have all students and staff back in the building and comply with the guidance and guidelines regarding spacing, ratios and [personal protective equipment]?” said Higgins. “Under current guidance we would not be able to do that right now.”
“Even removing things out of the classroom we do not have the space to fit all students, every day,” said School Board member Jennifer Alexander. “So those plans seem to be leaning more towards partial time in school. But again, not having anything finalized, it’s difficult.”
The third scenario, said Higgins, is a combination of in-person and remote instruction, “based on a choice of students and families.”
A recent survey of hundreds of families conducted by School Department staff indicated that while many families are eager to return to school, he said, “There are also many families who responded on the survey that would prefer not to have their children back” in the buildings, either because remote instruction “worked well for them,” or “they weren’t comfortable sending their children back.”
There is also the potential for having student cohort groups, aimed at containing possible outbreaks by limiting interaction, and, for families with multiple children, having students in the same family be in school on the same day. That would ease some complications associated with transportation and daycare, said Higgins.
And while continuing an entirely remote learning environment is not something many staff or families want, it needs to be planned for, said Higgins.
Alexander said the survey conducted by the department found that remote learning “provided a lot of challenges for the families.” With parents either working from home or many now back in the office, there are issues with daycare and parents concerned about whether they will be able to be there to administer remote learning. Of around 460 responses, said Alexander, “Over 275 have concerns about being able to ensure the amount of adult assistance that their learning would need.”
Higgins said he has been in discussion with Peter Farragher, director of the Down East Family YMCA, about potentially collaborating to help staff and families manage daycare issues, but no plans have been finalized. Many staff members also have children in the school system, said Alexander, “So if we go to remote learning or even a portion of remote learning, and then also in-person instruction, those schedules could be tricky.”
School nurse Christine Reinig said the department also has been consulting with a local pediatrician, who “felt that safe reopening of the schools really hinges on testing.”
“If there is no testing, there is no plan forward that is safe,” she said.
Right now, said Reinig, “Testing is not available unless someone has traveled out of state, has been in contact with someone testing positive or people who are symptomatic. You can’t do randomized testing of asymptomatic people.”
The state announced this week that it would open an additional 18 “swab and send” testing sites, including ones in Ellsworth, Blue Hill and Bar Harbor. According to a press release, the sites will offer free specimen collection to anyone, with or without symptoms, who believes they may have been exposed, including health and hospitality workers, those who have participated in large gatherings, and visitors from other states with a higher prevalence of COVID-19 than in Maine, as well as people of color, given racial disparities associated with the disease. They can be tested without an order from a health-care provider, but it’s not yet clear how those sites could be utilized to help schools.
Reinig said there is also some concern that the seasonal flu may exacerbate coronavirus.
“I think we commonly think that kids don’t get seriously ill with coronavirus, but with the flu that may change that,” she said.
And new research has indicated in recent weeks that the virus, once thought to travel in large, isolated droplets, spreads in smaller droplets, possibly “Up to 8 meters (27 feet),” said Reinig.
“In some settings, even 2 meters [6 feet] may be too close,” Reinig cautioned. Students heading to summer camp at the Down East YMCA have been spaced 3 feet apart on the bus, but Reinig said that with this new information, “I think it’s unrealistic to consider 3 feet as being an option.”
Temperature screenings for students entering school aren’t being recommended, said school nurse Jacquie Sandone, in part because it could create crowding, but also because the thermometers required for an accurate enough reading are very expensive, not those typically used in schools.
Face coverings, however, “are going to play a vital role in reducing the spread of the disease,” said Sandone, but ensuring students can safely wear them “will involve modeling, teaching and reinforcing.”
Students and staff may be able to wear their own face coverings if they meet the standard, said Higgins, but the School Department is preparing to cover the cost, with financial help from the state and federal governments.
“If we’re going to be looking at a point where we’re requiring people to wear them, we need to be prepared to cover the cost.”
There are separate groups working on concerns around mental, behavioral and emotional health considerations, said Higgins, and the state framework also includes guidance for schools.
But in terms of physical health, “The safest is certainly online instruction,” said Reinig.
And if students do go back, there is the issue of getting them there safely. The department has 12 buses and six vans for special needs students.
Buses will likely only be able to carry less than a quarter of their normal 55 to 60 students, although there is the possibility of grouping siblings in a seat to boost that.
“We may have to start at 4 o’clock in the morning in order to get all the kids to school at 8 and we may not get all the buses into the barn until 7 o’clock at night,” said Director of Transportation Donald Saunders. “A single bus run of the past will now need to be accomplished in two or three runs.”
The bus run on the Bangor, Winkumpaugh and Happytown roads route, for instance, takes an hour and a quarter on a good day, said Saunders.
“Requiring him to return to the school to reload twice, would extend his day to 5 or 5:30 in the evening.”
The buses will also have to be thoroughly cleaned, of course, which takes time, with drivers and students masked. Many staff are older, with underlying health conditions, and particularly susceptible to severe health effects, said Saunders.
“I’ve got to apologize for painting such a bleak picture,” he said. “A lot of this is like trying to hit the hole of a rolling donut and what might be a target now is going to move and going to be problematic down the road.”