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Maine DOE commissioner addresses back to school questions, concerns

Commissioner Pender Makin with the Maine Department of Education answered questions about the upcoming school year, as most students prepare to return in two weeks.

PORTLAND, Maine — The return to school for most Maine students is just a couple of weeks away, and the back-to-school jitters might be a bit bigger than usual for some because of COVID-19 questions and concerns. That's because pandemic-related guidelines seem to change almost every day, as the Delta variant spreads.

Commissioner Pender Makin with the Maine Department of Education (DOE) says people have fatigue from the "ongoing" nature of this pandemic. It's why the DOE is doing its best to make recommendations for schools (per information from public health authorities and others) to help keep students safe and healthy. She says the DOE has an "expectation" that Maine schools will take that role seriously, but ultimately, decisions will be made on a local (by municipality) level.

"This is our primary goal, I think, as a society: Every student in our state should have access to full-time, in-person learning," Makin told NEWS CENTER Maine. "We know that that is the safest and most effective way for kids to be educated, and so we're working very hard to make sure that school communities are safe and ready to keep students and staff healthy."

Makin agreed to answer some questions -- some directly from viewers -- live on NEWS CENTER Maine's "Morning Report" on Wednesday, Aug. 18. 

RELATED: Everything you need to know about COVID-19 and the vaccine in Maine

What safety precautions are schools being directed to follow? Will they be requiring masks, distancing students, using plexiglass, handwashing, etc.?

Commissioner Makin: "Schools are being asked by the U.S. CDC and the Maine CDC to implement indoor masks for all students, staff, and visitors inside of a school setting. In addition to that, we have other layered strategies that are highly recommended -- for example, setting up vaccination clinics, so that people who are not yet vaccinated will have opportunities for that. We have pooled testing programs that we didn’t have last year that are extremely effective in mitigating the spread of the coronavirus. Additionally, Governor Mills committed over $300 million to schools early last summer so that they were able to upgrade ventilation systems, expand outdoor spaces, and invest in certain things. Some will probably continue to use plexiglass. Social distancing is still recommended to the extent feasible but not to the exclusion of having every student in person full-time."

RELATED: More Maine schools announce plans on mask requirements

Last year, some parents had to stay home, if their students were quarantined as a close contact to a case of COVID-19. What can be done this year to help reduce the number of students who need to quarantine and miss school?

Commissioner Makin: "It’s one of the hardest things. With all of the disruption that COVID has caused, when a student is forced to quarantine for 10 days because they’re deemed in close contact to a positive case at school, that has caused parents to miss work, and it has caused children to miss significant chunks of education during a time when we need the most in-person education possible for everybody. In a sense, it’s a community responsibility. We all need to work together. We need to get vaccinated and use the responsible measures to make sure that there’s no community spread because the level of community spread tends to be reflected in the local school system -- so, that’s one thing. Also, schools know that within the protocols for quarantining, in the event that a student or staff person is close-contact, certain flexibilities are available if, for example, the person who is exposed is vaccinated -- or if that person is participating in the pooled testing programs that are offered for free at schools and providers by the DHHS and CDC team here in Maine. The other big one is wearing masks. If universal masks are worn indoors by all people and if that is enforced, there are additional flexibilities around the quarantine rule, and that can very much help to minimize it."

RELATED: Portland Board of Education approves school reopening plan, universal masking

Is it reasonable (or even feasible) to expect children to wear a mask in school all day long?

Commissioner Makin: "As you know, our nation's highest public health officials and Maine CDC are strongly urging all people indoors in schools to be wearing masks. Let’s remember that last year we had tremendous success in mitigating the spread of COVID in school settings, and students wore masks all the time, and they did it very well. In fact, we heard from most educators and school leaders that students did great. I think we adults have a harder time with the masks than the students do. There are structured mask breaks, certainly -- and there are protocols around safely eating and drinking and removing masks. Students did incredibly well with it, and last year Maine schools had far less COVID spread than any other setting in our state -- so, we know that this works, and we know that it’s very important to keep everybody moving forward and full-time in-person education for every kid."

RELATED: 'I can’t wait for the crowd': Maine high school athletes are ready to take the field

Will students be able to take part in extracurricular activities like music, athletics, drama, etc. this year?

Commissioner Makin: "At the Maine Department of Education, we are recommending that all schools take a whole-student approach to education. That means helping students to be engaged in enrichment activities, opportunities for exercise, and leadership and socialization that are all part of a critical piece to a well-rounded education for all students. That said, the U.S. CDC does say that these activities come with additional risk in terms of coronavirus, and there are steps that we know that schools can be taking to mitigate that. Those include certainly students that are going to be engaged in athletics or after-school activities should be participants within a pooled testing program in order to mitigate spread and also to stem any possible quarantines that could interrupt their involvement in those programs. Last year, music, theater, and chorus suffered a lot of heavy requirements through the U.S. CDC, and national experts were very concerned about those activities. We know a lot more this year, and we are recommending that those activities are conducted in the same manner -- safely and with as much distance as is feasible and with masks and so forth; but we do encourage schools to embrace all of those well-rounded important components of an education."

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Will schools be offering remote learning options for families who are worried about the safety of in-person learning? 

Commissioner Makin: "As I’ve said before, we know that full-time in-person learning is our strongest recommendation for all students -- and schools are able to create conditions that will keep students safe. That said, for years Maine schools have been offering innovative pathways, including remote options for students -- individual students who need those, or groups of students who would benefit from something a little bit different from the in-person classroom experience. Those would still be offered within the school settings. That said, the Department of Education does not require of schools any specific instructional modalities or programs -- and so we encourage parents, with students especially who have particular needs, to reach out to your schools; communicate with the principals and superintendents and the nurses and counselors; and make sure that your child’s needs are well-known. Schools have been, for years, very flexible around creating these pathways for students who need them."

RELATED: Maine colleges and universities that are mandating the COVID-19 vaccine

Are some teachers/staff fearful of returning to the classroom? Is there concern that there may be a shortage of workers?

Commissioner Makin: "There is a dire shortage of education workers, educators -- and that pre-exists, irrespective of the COVID pandemic. Of course, it's been exacerbated by the pandemic. We know that public opinion and teacher morale actually has been denigrated over time, where it used to be a very highly respected profession -- and we know that there is a lot of media around failing schools. These are myths that are somehow created -- where the truth is our schools are just doing phenomenal work, and our department has worked hard to elevate and to celebrate the incredible work done by Maine’s educators. We are also trying to streamline processes around certification and also create flexible and innovative pathways for people to enter the profession. If you want to be a teacher, please -- we need you! Reach out to the Department of Education. Regarding teachers and staff members being fearful in the age of a pandemic -- well, to (an) extent we all experience that level of unease. I do know that last year, we opened, unlike most states and schools across the nation. Maine schools did open for in-person learning, and we were extraordinarily safe. We used layered strategies to mitigate the spread of COVID, and school and classroom settings were very safe last year. Now, we also know that early this year in the spring, teachers were prioritized, education workers were prioritized for vaccination -- and vaccinated people are incredibly safe in spite of even the breakthrough cases. They’re not getting very sick or requiring hospitalization, and so we’re very confident that educators are safe and vaccinated and ready to embrace the school year."

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See more about the U.S. CDC's "Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in K-12 Schools".