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

The Maine Department of Education updated its 'Framework for Returning to Classroom Instruction' on Monday, July 13, but an official decision has not yet been made.

MAINE, USA — Time seems to move more quickly during the summer, and at this point, there is only about a month and a half left until school begins. What that will look like in Maine, though, is still unclear.

On Monday, July 13, the Maine Department of Education updated its "Framework for Returning to Classroom Instruction", a website filled with detailed, five-part information about what schools around the state will have to consider before next semester begins. 

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Part I: Physical Health and Safety -- to determine when it is safe to reopen, schools will have to take steps like monitoring the number of COVID-19 cases in their region and determining their capacity to protect staff and students. Buildings and classrooms should be thoroughly cleaned, and one-way directions and hygiene signs should be installed, where possible. Staff members and families should also be provided with a daily self-check list of symptoms. Kids should learn how to properly social distance and wear a face mask. 

Part II: Social, Emotional, Behavioral, and Mental Health -- before re-entry, schools should connect with mental health staff, counselors, social workers, and educators. They should also provide forums for families and students to ask questions or share concerns and ideas. Staff members should have increased awareness of signs of anxiety and depression.

Part III: Academic Program and Student Learning -- preparation among staff members should start now. This summer, they should be provided free webinars and live sessions about remote learning and blended learning model at the DOE. They should prepare for a number of scenarios and assess needs of students regarding access to technology and an adequate home learning space. Impact on students with disabilities, or who are learning English, should be taken into account, too.

Part IV: Common Expectation for Hybrid and Remote Learning Models -- the Maine DOE says all schools/SAUs should have three plans for the fall, which include a return to in-person instruction (with health and safety guidelines in place) for all students where the risk of contracting COVID-19 is low; a "hybrid" instruction plan to limit the number of students and staff in the same area when there is a moderate risk; and a remote instruction plan when there is a high level of risk of COVID-19. 

Part V: Additional Considerations -- schools should look into aspects of their services like adult education, career and technical education, child nutrition program, the school health office, and transportation to determine how they may be affected. 

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NEWS CENTER Maine spoke with a mental health expert at Northern Light Acadia Hospital to find out what parents and kids can be doing now to manage stress while awaiting schools' decisions -- and prepare for what the next season could look like.

Chris McLaughlin, associate vice president of Community and Pediatric Services at Northern Light Acadia Hospital, says it's an important time for families to try to be as united as possible, despite their personal feelings about the matter. Parents should set an example for kids by practicing flexibility and teaching them to release frustration and let people know what they're feeling or thinking ahead of time. 

McLaughlin says that if reopening of schools does happen, the summer is a great opportunity for families to prepare. They can do so by setting up hula-hoops for their kids to show what six feet apart looks like and have their kids wear masks for 10 to up to 30 minutes a day to build tolerance. Parents should also try to ease some of their stress now, too, by communicating with employers and a support system to figure out childcare issues and any other barriers.

Above all, McLaughlin says it's important for people to remember they are not alone -- and to connect with others, if they can.

"Recognize that you're in it together -- that everyone has this shared experience right now of going through this unknown," McLaughlin told NEWS CENTER Maine. "You know, I think there's something magical almost in taking stock with other families, extended families, and sharing -- 'How have you managed?'"

McLaughlin says he does think it's important for kids of certain ages to be on-site and learning in person but stresses that safety is the top priority. He is confident, though, that procedures will look better than the spring semester, no matter what happens.

"The advantage is we’ve all lived through it once, so to be able to re-create that to the best of our ability -- I think we can be more upfront and honest about what that would look like," McLaughlin expressed.

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Some additional back to school mental health resources for families include:

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