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'It weighs heavily' -- parents, school officials react to fall reopening plans for Maine schools

On July 17, the Maine Department of Education announced $165 million in federal CARES Act funding for schools to reopen this fall, if they are allowed to do so.

BRUNSWICK, Maine — For Brunswick mother Sarah Magenis, the past few months have been unlike any others -- and brought events she never could have anticipated. Like thousands of other parents across the state, she has been juggling work life with remote schooling for her second and fifth grade daughters.

That experience has been a hectic and at times unpleasant one -- for both Magenis and her girls. 

"We did the best we could to keep it a positive experience, but it's been a roller coaster," Magenis told NEWS CENTER Maine at the Brunswick downtown mall after work Friday evening. 

She says it's been tough knowing her daughters are missing out on normal socialization and experiences for children their ages. Dance classes are now held via YouTube, and Girl Scout meetings are conducted via Zoom. Six feet apart is the new comfort zone, and masks have become a kind of fashion staple.

"Really, the loss of the interaction for the girls was the hardest part. They got really sick of sitting in front of the computer, looking at themselves and their classmates popped up in a 'Brady Bunch' sort of scenario," Magenis chuckled.

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As summer rolls on despite the global pandemic, most parents are now asking themselves a challenging question -- if given the option in the fall, would they allow their children to return to an in-classroom setting? Like some, Magenis is very conflicted.

"It weighs heavily that we are a hot-spot," Magenis noted about Cumberland County. "That makes me lean towards keeping them home. Even though it's not what I would like to do, I think it’s almost what I would have to do at this point."

Those decisions are still a couple of weeks away, anyhow -- and could always change. On Friday, July 17, the Maine Department of Education announced it would be classifying counties as different COVID-19 risk zones. Green indicates a relatively low risk of COVID-19 spread, meaning schools can return to in-person instruction models; yellow indicates an elevated risk, meaning schools should adopt hybrid instruction models; and red indicates a high risk, meaning schools should not return to in-person instruction models. 

These determinations will be based on recent data regarding case rates, positivity rates, and syndromic data. Maine DOE Commissioner Pander Makin says her team's ultimate goal is to have all students back to an in-person learning setting -- but only when it can be done safely.

"We're listening to the health experts and officials who we trust very much -- people who have kept our state very much safer than other states," Makin told NEWS CENTER Maine via Zoom. "We're taking their guidance, and we're sharing that with the schools -- and we believe that parents will be (should be) comforted in knowing that it's safe to send their children."

RELATED: Return plan for Maine schools still unclear, but families' mental preparation should start now

Makin says schools will be required to go through a number of procedures before reopening, if they are allowed to do so -- made possible by $165 million in federal CARES Act funding. Maine schools will be asked to use that money for modifications to spaces and leases for additional spaces to enforce social distancing; PPE and signage; and transportation. Additionally, they have also been asked to prepare for all three scenarios -- in-person, hybrid, or remote instruction models -- and possible transitions in between.

Superintendent Gregg Palmer with the Brewer School Department says his staff members prepped in general through June, in order to take a mental break in July. Come the end of this month, they will reconnect to further discuss how to start the school year without creating too much of a "yo-yo effect" for students -- something Palmer says he wants to avoid.

"Our goal is to have a safe, stable model that we can maintain with the least disruption until there's a vaccine," Palmer explained to NEWS CENTER Maine via Zoom. 

The day a vaccine is available, if that day ever arrives, is one parents like Magenis are eagerly waiting for -- mainly, for the sake of their children.

"For them, I would love to be comfortable sending them back," Magenis stressed. "The reality is, from the reality of the pandemic and the scientific aspect of it, I don’t feel comfortable -- so, it’s really going to be an extremely difficult decision."

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