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Schools, parents prepare as Dept. of Education has yet to release final plans for reopening

Schools statewide are already making drastic and expensive changes to keep students safe during the COVID-19 pandemic as they await further guidance.

HOLLIS, Maine — The Maine Department of Education has yet to release a final plan on schools reopening in the fall, but many parents and local school officials are already making plans of their own. 

Like most parents, Olivia Curtis-Doucette is on the fence about sending her kids back to school.

"I am and I'm not," she said when asked. "I would more question if the school is ready."

Curtis-Doucette, a mother of six, said she is worried about their health--including those at-risk if they do contract the virus.

"I think we have to find that middle ground for them," she said.

That is why school officials in her children's school district, MSAD 6, have been working for weeks to come up with plans of their own, releasing a tentative learning plan for the school year this week.

"We literally cut holes in the wall and removed furniture. We have construction going on!" Clay Gleason, principal of Hollis Elementary School, said. 

The construction to the school's main entrance and nurses' office is to help with space constraints.

MSAD 6 is one of the state's largest rural school districts serving over 3,500 students. 

Superintendent Paul Penna said he is working to ensure every school building has adequate space, but it has been a challenge. 

"You need space and you need people," he said. "The two things that we don't have an abundance of."

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Penna said the district is also worried about the logistics of having to bus students to and from school with so many limitations on how many can be on a single bus at a time.

The biggest problem though is how to pay for it all. 

"We put some additional money in our budget, but that's not going to be enough to sustain us," Penna said. 

Several schools in the state have released tentative plans this week. 

Most follow a three-level design. This is MSAD 6's current plan:

Level 1 (Red)- All Instruction is Remote (Distance Learning) 

At this level the Governor has issued a “stay-at-home” order, and/or the Department of Education and the Maine CDC are recommending a school closure. During Level 1, only essential workers are allowed in school facilities and all instruction will be remote in nature.

Level 2 (Yellow)- A Hybrid Schedule of both Remote and In-Person Instruction

At this level, the Governor has modified or loosened the “stay-at-home” order and in-person school is permitted with specific conditions provided by the Governor, the Maine Department of Education, or the Maine CDC. Under these circumstances, groups of students will alternate between two days in school and two days of remote/independent learning, with all students remote on Fridays. The purpose of this plan is to limit the number of students in the buildings at one time to reduce the risk of exposure.

Level 3 (Green)- All Students Attend School 

At this level, there are no “stay-at-home” orders in place and there are only limited restrictions on school activities and gatherings. Even though all students will be permitted to attend school, MSAD 6 may still employ procedures (face coverings, etc.) and limit some activities to reduce the risk of exposure.

"Every time we think we've solve the problem we have a plan for something there's another detail, there's another piece that we need to figure out," MSAD 6 Asst. Superintendent Lori Napolitano said. 

The Maine Department of Education has released some guidance to schools as it continues to work with the Maine Center for Disease Control and public health officials to develop a final framework. 

Dr. Dora Mills, a pediatrician and public health expert for MaineHealth, said she is confident Maine can find a solution given that the number of positive cases are so low compared to other parts of the country. 

Looking at how other countries around the world have transitioned back to in-person learning, she said is also optimistic about the recent science that shows spread of the virus among younger children is minimal. 

"The younger they are the more likely they are to be not as contagious and not get sick with it and not contracted as easily," Mills told NEWS CENTER Maine. "If the pandemic stays at low activity as it is now I absolutely would be fine for my children to go back to school."

Mills added that it would be dependent on safety measures in place, including things like masks wearing, Plexiglas barriers and social distancing. 

Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah addressed that very issue in Thursday' press briefing, including preparing schools to handle a potential outbreak. 

"Schools themselves should have the basics of a plan in place for what they would do and how they would communicate with say, parents and staff if they were to detect a case and how they would rapidly move towards isolating particular students things of that nature," he said. 

A spokesperson for the Maine Dept. of Education told NEWS CENTER Maine that Commissioner Pender Makin is expected to make an announcement regarding reopening plans as early as Friday afternoon. 

At NEWS CENTER Maine, we’re focusing our news coverage on the facts and not the fear around the illness. To see our full coverage, visit our coronavirus section, here: /coronavirus-covid-19