Conners Emerson School in Bar Harbor is one of the schools in the district who has seen a growth in student population this year due to families "extending their stay in their second homes,” according to Principal Barbara Neilly. ISLANDER FILE PHOTO

Seasonal families adding to school numbers

By Sarah Hinckley and Liz Graves 

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MOUNT DESERTThere isn’t a better place to live through a pandemic than MDI,” said Mount Desert Elementary School Principal Gloria Delsandro in a conversation with the Islander this week.  

That sentiment seems to be shared by a number of families who typically only spend the summer season on Mount Desert Island. In recent weeks, enrollment at MDES has increased by 13 students and Conners Emerson School in Bar Harbor has seen an increase of 15 new students, according to Julie Meltzer, the school district’s director of curriculum, assessment and instruction.  

“There definitely is a pattern of folks considering their options for schooling,” said Delsandro. “I’ve had to make some changes.” 

At the Bar Harbor school board meeting Monday, held in person in the  Conners Emerson library, Principal Barb Neilly said several families “are  extending their stay in their second homes” this year. 

About a quarter of the Conners Emerson student population is electing a  remote-only option, she said. The families are committing to that option  through January. 

Several teachers have requested leaves of absence or will be teaching  remotely. Others have been given “involuntary reassignments,” some this  week, to cover all the classes and subjects with all the rearranging of students and staff. 

“So far, none of the other K-8 schools have seen a big impact from seasonal/visiting families choosing to stay besides Conners Emerson and MDES,” said Meltzer in an email. “This trend – while we welcome all new students  has been a bit tricky to manage because of the need to balance numbers of students and existing spaces along with the required physical distancing and other safety protocols to mitigate COVID-19.”  

Delsandro and Meltzer both said the numbers could change right up until, and possibly after, the school year begins on Sept. 8. On Swan’s Island, two new students have joined the school. In Tremont and Cranberry Isles, there has been one new student added to the enrollment numbers at each school.  

“I’ll accept students anytime,” said Delsandro. “That’s what we do.” 

While 18 percent of families with elementary and middle school students in the district have opted for virtual-only instruction this school year, according to Meltzer, the goal for administrators at each school is to eventually have students return to the classroom.  

“With numbers in flux, we are making and remaking plans to safely open the schools,” said Meltzer. “We are also hiring a cadre of virtual-only teachers who will provide focused online teaching and learning that is engaging and rigorous for the 150+ K-8 students choosing to attend school online.”  

Accommodating students, this school year, not only means creating safe spaces for them to return to, but also providing them with the proper remote-learning technology devices for the start of the school year. Every student in the AOS 91 district will be learning remotely for the month of September, a decision made by the district board earlier this month.  

“Principals are working hard with building-based teams to figure out all the logistics in each building,” said Meltzer. “It is a challenging puzzle. However, I am confident that we will continue to find creative solutions. We are all looking forward to a successful school year.”  

The Bar Harbor teachers’ association sent a letter before the meeting Monday with questions about safety, protocols and expectations, saying information has  been hard to find. Because the health guidance is changing so quickly, the protocols keep having to be revised. School staff have set up an isolation room and air purifiers in any room with windows that don’t open, Neilly said. School nurses have been attending regular trainings with the Center for Disease Control. The school will also look for ways “to have kids outside more than we used to.” She said the community resource guide assembled in the spring will continue to be important as the school seeks to support families’ diverse needs. The pandemic continues to be a social and emotional roller coaster, she said. “It’s  going to be a wave. We’re not all going to crash on the same day.” 

Enrollment figures from the last five years at both MDES and CES show a decrease in the student population by an average of 30 students during that time. Many people on the island and in the school district have been wondering how to increase student numbers over the last few years, so perhaps that is one silver lining to this global pandemic. 

Whether the families who have enrolled their children for this school year decide to stay once the pandemic is no longer a threat will remain to be seen, but administrators are working to accommodate this, and many other changes, for this school year.  

“During a time like this, I understand why people are looking to stay here,” said Delsandro. “We’re trying to keep up.” 

Sarah Hinckley

Sarah Hinckley

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

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