Pandemic and isolation are tough on kids 

MOUNT DESERT ISLAND  When schools within this district moved to remote learning in March, between 10 and 20 percent of students completely disengaged from contact with their school.  

“I think that’s way too many and I think that’s less than other districts had faced,” said Julie Meltzer, the district’s director of curriculum, assessment and instruction, at the end of September. “We were on a very high end of districts as far as participation.” 

This fall, when the 2020-21 school year began, about 17 percent of students within the district opted for online-only instruction for the school year. School officials recently sent out a survey asking parents if they want their child to stick with whichever model of instruction they chose at the beginning of the year. For the second semester, the number of online-only learners could change.   

Kindergarten through seventh grade students who are participating in online-only learning attend what is called Virtual Academy. For them, there is a regimented schedule of instruction throughout the school day with teachers focusing specifically on these students. Classes are made up of students from throughout the district who are in the same grade, many of whom had never met until this school year.  

“They’re with teachers they’re not used to and they’re with kids they don’t know,” said Meltzer in a recent conversation with the Islander. 

Online instruction in eighth through twelfth grade is more of a self-propelled model of learning. Teachers of these students are instructing in-person students as well as those participating online. There is still a daily schedule of classes for students to participate in, but there is less direct accountability for participation outside of completing work assigned. In other words, if a student logs in for class, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are actively following the lesson and it is particularly difficult for a teacher to track this when focusing on in-person and online-learning simultaneously.  

 “We have had some significant attendance issues,” said Meltzer. “We know who those students are. In some cases, we’ve determined it’s not a good model for those students.” 

Outside of school-directed instruction, homeschooling in the district increased more than 100 percent this year. On average, there are about 50 students who are homeschooled in the district. According to a report Meltzer recently gave to the school systems board, 127 students district wide are being homeschooled this year.  

“We’re seeing surveys (sent out to parents by principals) that some of those newer home-schooled students from this year, only, are asking either to come back in person or to come to the Virtual Academy program,” Meltzer said in her report. “I don’t know what that will look like when we get all of the survey results.” 

Prior to the pandemic, the average rate of absenteeism among Maine’s student population of nearly 192,000 in 2016-17 was 16 percent. That same report showed 11 percent of the students in the MDIRSS were chronically absent.  

“We are not seeing absentee or significant drop off for our in-person students,” said Meltzer about this school year. “There are some in-person [students] who are having significant attendance issues. It’s about five percent. Again, we know who they are. We’re trying to be in constant contact.” 

For these students, the officials in charge of them are aware of their struggle to attend regularly, whether in person or virtually. Often times these are students who have a difficult time regardless of a pandemic. But Meltzer, principals and school counselors are all concerned that these situations, exacerbated by a pandemic, lead to increased problems with mental health, isolation, depression and families struggling to keep it together.  

“We’re all worried about these things because we’re seeing examples of them,” said Meltzer. “I think we’re seeing more than usual, but not substantially more.” 

In these situations, family support can be a big factor, but not always.  

“I think engagement is an issue for a number of kids,” said Meltzer. “I think parents are concerned with remote-only kids… The fact that they are seeing their kids withdraw into electronics.” 

Recently, the school hosted workshops offering support for families of online learners.  

“A lot of parents don’t know what to do,” said Meltzer. “They’re watching their kids behave quite differently than they’re used to. 

“I think what we need right now is more social interaction, more social supports,” she added, explaining that people are withdrawing more because the number of COVID-19 cases are increasing. “It’s making it even harder for kids to engage in the first place. Everyone is isolated right now, that is the piece I’m concerned about.” 

Typically at this time of year, isolation, seasonal depression and other mental health issues would be combated with end of year music and theater performances, indoor winter sports activities and other extracurricular activities. None of that is happening at this time. 

“I think our counselors are really, really busy right now,” said Meltzer. “They’re checking in with kids regularly.” 

Each school within the district assigns a truancy officer as part of protocol. These assignments are typically given to officials in the community, such as a police chief, if one exists. Most of the time, truancy is a problem dealt with at the school level and does not involve the truancy officer.  

Prior to his death in October, the Islander spoke with Southwest Harbor Police Chief Alan Brown about his role as the school’s truancy officer. 

“We’re a last resort,” said Brown, who added he did not know he was listed as the school’s truancy officer. “Everything starts pretty much within the school. It’s just not something the police deal with very much.”
During his 32 years in law enforcement, Brown recalled one time he visited a home regarding a truant student. “I think I’ve accompanied one principal to one house and I did nothing. He took me with him for support.” 

In the spring, when the pandemic was new and everyone was grappling with how to proceed in education, in work, in life, there was not a way to police the attendance rate of students. And the state standards for defining truancy changed to accommodate the massive upheaval.  

“You’re allowed to be marked present as long as you had a substantive daily interaction with a teacher in a day,” said Meltzer in the September conversation, explaining the change. “It is a different standard because sometimes kids do have technology issues and can’t get on.” 

Going into this school year, parents and school officials determined online learning was an option for students who could regularly check in without technological difficulty.  

“If we see some kids dropping off, we can do something about it,” said Meltzer. “For some kids right now, the only rhythms and routines are coming from the schools, but that’s what also makes it dicey for virtual students. They can choose not to log on.” 

With school vacation about to begin, Meltzer and others within the schools are concerned that students whose normal holiday traditions are changing because of the pandemic may struggle.  

“Everyone is worried, and I think there is good reason for that,” she said. “Everybody is on alert and doing their best to keep it going. Everyone is exhausted.”  


Sarah Hinckley

Sarah Hinckley

Former Islander reporter Sarah Hinckley covered the towns of Southwest Harbor, Tremont and neighboring islands.

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