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Maine Department of Education considers potential return to schools in fall semester

The Maine Department of Education says it will follow federal and state CDC guidelines to determine when and how a return to classrooms may be possible.

MAINE, USA — As the spring 2020 semester winds to a close, most Maine students, families, and teachers are wondering whether a return to campuses will be possible in the fall. There are still a lot of questions, but one constant -- faculty at K-12 and higher education schools all want to welcome students back, if they can do so safely.

Pender Makin is the commissioner for the Maine Department of Education. She says the past couple of months have been "quite a transition" after an original period of two remote weeks in mid-March turned into a sudden goodbye for the rest of the semester. Now, her staff and stakeholder groups from around the state are planning as best they can -- but local school superintendents can attest that it's not an easy feat.

"The variable here is the virus itself," Gregg Palmer, superintendent of the Brewer school system, expressed to NEWS CENTER Maine via Zoom. "We don’t have control over the variable, so we have to create flexible thinking and plans that can adjust."

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Makin says the DOE has four plans in place for K-12 students, come next semester:

  • Plan A: students can return to classrooms
  • Plan B: learning is done partly in-person, partly remotely
  • Plan C: learning is fully remote
  • Plan D: the semester begins on campus and shifts to online

The one constant -- Makin says that no matter what, the DOE will be prepared.

"I think the first time you have an emergency, it is truly an emergency. The next time you have an emergency, you better be planned for it," Makin emphasized.

If schools do reopen, Makin says they would follow CDC guidelines to keep everyone as safe as possible. Those guidelines at the moment include:

  • Requiring face coverings for faculty, staff, and students
  • Using signs to remind people to wash their hands
  • Making regular announcements about how to reduce the spread of COVID-19
  • Keeping people six feet apart at all times, including between desks and on school buses. In Maine, that means that kids would be required to sit alone in every other bus seat, which could also pose economic challenges for schools. 

Makin says the DOE is also pursuing a couple of other projects at the moment. The Department is using part of its CARES Act funding to create an online program as a contingency plan, taught by Maine educators for Maine students. That should be up and running by September. The DOE is also seeking a $15 million competitive grant to develop new approaches to online learning.

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Similar discussions about a potential reopening are also happening within the University of Maine System. Chancellor Dannel Malloy says that the question of "How do we reopen?" has been guiding decision-making from the beginning, as officials monitor federal and state CDC guidelines to determine when doing so may be safe.

"This virus is not going to go away anytime soon," Malloy told NEWS CENTER Maine. "It’s not going to go away on its own, so we have to manage that threat with the best planning and the best execution that we can bring about."

Some of that planning would include requiring face coverings in buildings and having smaller classroom sizes. That could be done by splitting large lectures into in-person and online sections and then altering the groups each class.

UMaine officials would likely ask students to stay in the state during the semester -- and staff could change calendar dates, to make it easier for students to go home for the holidays. 

Malloy says the UMaine system has convened with all private and public higher education schools in the state to create a document about guidance they agree upon. That information will be presented to the state next week.

Across all education levels, there's a similar message -- the future is unclear at this point, but officials are working diligently to make the most effective and safest decisions for their students.

"My message is that we’re not going anywhere," assured Palmer. "You know, all the school districts in the state of Maine are here for the long-haul."

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