ELLSWORTH — Schools around Hancock County and the state announced closures this week as the number of cases of coronavirus in Maine continued to tick upward.
Cases so far include a student at Cape Elizabeth Middle School in southern Maine who tested positive.
The Mount Desert Island Regional School System, which includes nine schools from Trenton to Frenchboro, was one of the first in the state to announce it would shut down, sending a letter to parents on Friday. MDI schools will be shut down until at least March 27.
Schools around the state and county quickly followed suit over the weekend. Officials in Bucksport’s Regional School Unit 25 (RSU 25) announced closures beginning Tuesday through March 27. George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill closed “for at least two weeks” starting Monday, March 16, according to a post on the school’s website.
Ellsworth and Regional School Unit 24 (RSU 24), which includes Sumner Memorial High School, announced closures through April 3. RSU 24 schools were initially set to be open Monday, but Superintendent Michael Eastman reversed that decision on Sunday after Governor Janet Mills declared a civil emergency and recommended that “schools cease classroom-based instruction as soon as practicable and for an indefinite period of time.”
“School will be closed for two weeks, and then we will reassess,” Union 93 Superintendent Mark Hurvitt wrote in an email on Saturday (the district includes five schools from Castine to Blue Hill). “If we believe what we hear, it will be closed for more than two weeks, but I am an optimist!”
School officials in Ellsworth announced the closure on Sunday afternoon, with schools closed beginning Tuesday through April 3.
Superintendent Dan Higgins did not attend an emergency City Council meeting on Sunday because he was in the midst of separate discussions on the closure at the time, according to City Manager David Cole. His absence prompted frustration from some.
But at a council meeting on Monday night, Higgins spoke at length about the difficult decision to close and the strain it will place on families that rely on schools not only for education, but also for child care and meals. Some students may not have access to resources for technology-based learning.
Roughly 20 percent of the district’s 1,350 students fall into that category, said Higgins.
“We need to be able to ensure that we’re providing the same opportunities for all students, and if we focus just on the technology piece, where 20 percent of our families do not have access, that’s a challenge that we’ve got to overcome,” said Higgins.
The district is putting together academic plans in two-week increments, he said, and working on distributing materials. That could include setting up tables (weather permitting, with proper social distancing) and scheduling times for parents to pick up materials or possibly using buses to deliver materials to students, with appropriate precautions in place.
Staff may continue to be in the buildings in some capacity. “Recommendations for ceasing educational instruction in schools does not include with it a prohibition to have staff continue to work as long as we have appropriate social distancing in place,” said Higgins.
Other administrators said they would also be figuring out how to keep students on track during the hiatus.
“I am thinking that they could pick up these packets at each school on Tuesday and Wednesday, or maybe there could be a distribution bus run on Tuesday or Wednesday,” said Hurvitt in an email. “We’ll have to figure that out.”
Plans are also being formulated on how to deliver meals to kids who might otherwise go hungry. The Ellsworth school district doesn’t meet the 50-percent threshold of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, which means it does not receive federal money to distribute meals when schools are closed. Ellsworth schools have hovered between 45 and 48 percent eligibility for years, said Higgins.
But word came on Monday that the state had received approval for a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which administers the school lunch program, that will make schools eligible for federal money to provide meals to students.
“Which is outstanding news,” said Higgins.
The district is still waiting on more guidance on what it needs to do to get formal approval, said Higgins, as well as how the meals would be provided. That might include food being prepared in “secure packages,” and dropped at homes by bus routes through family arrangements, said Higgins. “There may be a cooler that they leave on the front porch, or be able to hang it on a doorknob,” he said.
But it’s not likely students will return to campus for meals, said Higgins. “Our understanding is that we’re not able to provide that onsite because, again, we’re not going to be bringing all our students back to school to feed them.”
In 2020, a total of 6,651 children in Hancock County were enrolled in the free and reduced lunch program, according to the Department of Education, and roughly 41 percent of Hancock County children were eligible. For 2020, a student in a family of four making $2,790 or less per month is eligible for free lunch; or $3,970 per month to qualify for reduced-price meals.
There are also concerns about child care for those who cannot work from home, and worries over whether sending students home would mean they will be staying with grandparents or others who may be at greater risk for serious complications from the virus. Almost 40 percent of grandparents in the United States provide child care for their grandchildren, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Limiting large gatherings is likely to play an important role in stopping the spread of the virus, according to the CDC, but because longer-term closures may result in more grandparents caring for grandchildren, children congregating outside of school and health care workers having to stay home to care for children, it’s unclear how successful school closures will be in stopping the virus.
“Those places who closed school (e.g., Hong Kong) have not had more success in reducing spread than those that did not (e.g., Singapore),” notes the document. But both countries took early aggressive measures to contain the virus, including widespread testing, which has been slow to come in the United States. In Singapore, where schools are open, daily health checks are being conducted on staff and students, including taking temperatures.