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The reason many schools are still hybrid learning? Officials say it comes down to space

Parents across the state are pushing for 5 days a week of in-person learning, but social distancing guidelines don't make that possible

MAINE, USA — Thousands of parents have joined Facebook groups, held Zoom meetings, and attended school board meetings to try to find a way to get their students back in school for in-person learning five days a week.

"At this point, we've proven that schools have been considered safe here in Maine," Maine Department of Education (DOE) Commissioner Pender Makin said.

Before the start of this school year, every district in Maine was required to provide a green, yellow and red model to re-open schools. This included completely remote, hybrid, and in-person models.

Some school districts in Maine are in-person five days a week while some are in a hybrid model. Anytime students are in school they are required to have three feet of spacing between students, and six feet of spacing between students and adults. This guidance comes from both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Maine Center for Disease Control.

RELATED: Auburn School Committee votes to end hybrid learning for high school students 

Catholic schools in Maine have been in school five days a week since September while still following the three-foot spacing model.

"Our Catholic school community as supported by the Bishop really committed to re-opening full time," Alanna Stevenson, principal at St. Dominic Academy in Lewiston said.

Stevenson added that at her school, they had space to social distance with the number of students enrolled.

For Maine's public schools, that's not always the case.

"We’re stuck in this social distancing world because we have older facilities," RSU 16 Superintendent Kenneth Healey said. "We can’t expand classrooms. The only thing we can possibly do is get portable classrooms if they’re available, but then we don’t have the ability to have teachers to come in or hire teachers to man those classrooms. There’s a teacher shortage, so I think they don’t have the scientific matrix to say it’s safe enough."

Healey said that after he received pushback from the community, he wrote to Gov. Janet Mills.

A member of Mills' team responded to Healey, but Healey said, "Essentially they’re going to continue the same mode. We are keeping the social distancing until all that matrix line up, so we’re kind of in a standstill."

"Governor Mills believes strongly that decisions about returning to the classroom must be based on the most current public health data and trends available," Dorian Cole, director of constituent correspondence wrote to Healey. "Her office, in collaboration with the Maine DOE, DHHS, and the Maine CDC, will continue to review scientific evidence, Federal recommendations, the experiences of other states, and the experiences of Maine school staff and teachers. For the sake of Maine children, for the livelihoods of Maine families, and for the future of our state, a safe return to classroom instruction remains her goal."

Parents are frustrated as they are juggling careers, families, and now acting as a teacher for their children. They are focused on their children academically, but also emotionally.

"My kids do their school work so it's emotionally taking a real toll and that affects their ability to focus and do their school work," Hannah Barry, a Cumberland mother said.

Parents are not alone in this. Students also are concerned about falling behind in school, and they miss their friends in different cohorts.

"It's really hard, it's stressful and it puts a lot of pressure on you to either learn the content or understand it on your own," Mia Stewart, an 8th grader at Greely Middle School said. "For me, I've been really struggling at school because I don't have most of my friends to turn to."

Students from Kindergarten to 12th grade are spending a lot more time on screens. For older students, educators have been having a hard time trying to get their students to engage.

Jesse Hargrove, a social studies teacher at Hermon High School, told NEWS CENTER Maine that some students might be picking up extra shifts at jobs, or taking care of younger siblings.

"There's just been some families or students where we're trying and for whatever reason, we just can't get those students to re-engage," he said.

As teachers continue to get vaccinated, parents continue to push to reopen schools to in-person learning full time. While vaccinations are the light at the end of the tunnel, Maine DOE commissioner Makin said the vaccines for teachers will keep school doors open even in the hybrid model.

When a person is vaccinated against COVID-19, they no longer have to quarantine if they come in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Therefore, teachers who are vaccinated will be able to stay in their classrooms if cases emerge.

RELATED: Maine DOE, CDC stand firm as group of legislators calls for eased restrictions on reopening schools full-time

Watch the full interview with Makin here:

Some Maine schools have been forced to get creative, including holding outdoor classes to better social distance.

"We've seen schools and classrooms take the whole thing outdoors even into the winter here in Maine which is pretty bold," Makin said.

Mast Landing Elementary School reopened to five days a week of in-person learning earlier this month by doing just that. 

The school's principal, Emily Grimm, said the school has partnered with Wolfe Neck Center Farm Discovery School so some students are going to school there.

"There's been a lot of logistics but today feels like a great day," Grimm said the day she reopened her school five days a week.

When asked what she would say to frustrated parents, Makin said, "first of all, thank you with all my heart for your partnership, for your deep caring, and for all you've had to sacrifice during this unprecedented emergency pandemic."

Makin added that this pandemic will make students and educators alike stronger and better for getting through it.

Make sure to tune in Tuesday at 6 pm to see the entire story. 

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