Outgoing School Board Chairwoman Brenda Thomas (second from right) received a round of applause for her service at a meeting on Oct. 13. FILE PHOTO

COVID-era learning has hiccups and high points

ELLSWORTH — The Oct. 13 School Board meeting began in gratitude, with board members and Superintendent Dan Higgins opening the 3½-hour session by offering their appreciation and a round of applause for outgoing board member and current Chairwoman Brenda Thomas. Thomas has served since 2014, when Ellsworth broke from Regional School Unit 24 and a new five-member board was voted in.

The meeting wound down with unanimous approval of Downeast Audubon’s proposal to revive an Ellsworth Middle School nature trail created by teacher Melanie Brown’s Eagle Scout son many years ago. The trail will end in an outdoor classroom, with Downeast Audubon funding the $16,500 cost.

“I think it’s a no-brainer,” Higgins said.

In between, it was all issues, problems and some bright spots in how teachers, administrators and students are dealing with the challenges of educating kids during a pandemic.

“If you asked me five weeks ago how it was going to go, I really didn’t know,” High School Principal Dan Clifford said. “And five weeks later, I’d say it’s going really, really well. Everyone’s going above and beyond.”

Higgins announced that student meals will be free through Dec. 30, with reimbursement to the district by the state, and state relief funds are also coming to help with family childcare costs, also through Dec. 30 and retroactive to Sept. 14.

Higgins also reported on October enrollment figures, with the district down 39 students for a 1,305 total.

“Frankly, I expected our numbers to go down more than they did,” he said. The decrease is mostly from families switching to home-schooling and a 13-student drop in kindergarten enrollment. With the Department of Education relying on the fall enrollment numbers to determine subsidies, Higgins said the DOE may be persuaded to use 2019 numbers for this year.

While extra staff was added since the pandemic — two in the high school, four in K-8 and one at Hancock County Technical Center — filling open positions is proving a huge challenge. Higgins followed his announcement of three staff resignations by listing the open positions the district can’t seem to fill: a K-4 art teacher; a grades 5-8 resource room position; an HCTC long-term math sub; and a district IT director. Higgins said he is working with the University of Maine in search of possible December education graduates.

Elementary School Principal April Clifford captured the urgency in her report: “I need ed techs!”

Currently, 85 elementary students, 80 middle school students and 80 high school students are attending 100 percent remotely, while the remaining students are in a hybrid model that staggers students for in-school and at-home learning.

But those numbers should change come the end of the first grading block, Higgins said. While fully remote students committed to that model to start the year, they have the choice to change to the hybrid model for the second trimester or quarter, depending on the school. If in-school slots still remain, some students may be able to attend five days per week, Higgins said.

With teachers and ed techs instructing students in school, remotely and both simultaneously, student attendance and attention is flagging at times but improving as new measures are taken, principals said. For example, at the middle school, remote students may now join Google classrooms in session at any time for teacher support, and about half the classes are synchronized as remote and in-person. Still, some teachers are recording and uploading classes for remote students, and others are creating separate lessons for their remote students, Principal Erica Gabbianelli said, stressing the goal of “equity in learning.”

At HCTC, students are anxious over completing the live work hours needed for certifications in their chosen fields of study, Principal Amy Boles said. Compounding issues is that a handful of Sumner Memorial High School students attend only two days per week. Still, attendance is good, she said.

“I thought we’d have a lot more kids skipping,” Boles said. She is discussing in-school classes four or five days each week with students and families.

Kindergarten attendance is not as solid, Clifford said, while students and parents are finding remote, technology-based learning overwhelming.

“Every staff member in the building is working really, really hard,” she said. “That’s a positive thing.”

The board also approved, unanimously, recommending an HCTC renovation feasibility study to the City Council; a handful of policies under review, with revisions to some; awarding snow removal contracts to Clark Construction, for EMS and EHS, and to R.F. Jordan & Sons for HCTC and the bus garage, totaling $42,000; a new floor scrubber for the maintenance department; and supporting the Maine School Board Association’s resolutions to be presented at its meeting later this month. Jennifer Alexander will be the delegate to the MSBA meeting, with Paul Markosian as the alternate.

Resolutions under consideration are introducing legislation to allow remote participation in board meetings absent a health emergency; developing a permanent distance learning plan; building stronger family support in education; and developing a program to change practices that unintentionally lead to biases.

“This ties into what’s already happening in the district,” Higgins said.

All School Board meetings are streamed live on the Ellsworth High School Facebook page and remain online for later viewing. The board meets the second Tuesday of each month at 6:30 p.m.

Anne Berleant

Anne Berleant

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
News Reporter Anne Berleant covers news and features in Ellsworth, Mariaville, Otis, Amherst, Aurora, Great Pond and Osborn. When not reporting, find her hiking local trails, reading or watching professional tennis. Anne loves tips and story ideas from the public. Email her at [email protected] or call her at 667-2576.

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