BAR HARBOR — Most years on Mount Desert Island, there’s a very busy few weeks at the end of the tourist season as many students and teachers balance summer jobs that are not over yet with schoolwork that has begun.
This year, that overlap of the tourist season and the school year was a major factor in the decision to postpone the start of in-person instruction until at least late September given the unknowns about spread of the coronavirus.
On Monday, the school system board approved the recommendation to begin school Sept. 8 with all students participating remotely and all teachers and staff reporting to work in the buildings. Administrators and school boards plan to monitor public health data and possibly return some students to the buildings on or before Sept. 25; individual schools and local boards may decide to return sooner. A remote-only option will also be available.
“We have considerable feedback from parents and staff recommending a remote-only start to the 2020-2021 school year, despite being in a “green” zone (designated by the state Department of Education), because of the unknown potential impact of travel and tourism,” according to a presentation prepared by school system staff.
Superintendent Marc Gousse also cited the recent concern about “asking visitors to voluntarily report” if they receive a positive COVID-19 test after arriving here as part of why he recommended the delay.
The decision came at a school system board meeting Monday after many hours of work by advisory committees for the district and each school, surveys of staff and families, a three-hour workshop held by the school system board and 150 pages of written public comment from teachers, parents and students.
“If everyone goes away a little angry, we’ve made a good compromise,” board member Lilea Simis said.
A second reason for the remote start is to give time for independent evaluations of health and safety needs in the school buildings themselves. A contract for that work has been awarded, Gousse said, but it won’t be complete before the start of the school year.
At the workshop Thursday, Simis said a lot of teachers don’t feel safe returning in person, and “what’s best for our students is having faculty and staff who feel safe.”
Some argued that many students and others in the community are safely working this summer and school will be at least as safe as those environments. In an email, Conners Emerson teacher Michael Fournier responded, “Classrooms are not built like inns or restaurants. Learning in a classroom is not like a dining experience. With learning, there is sharing of stories, hours of face–to–face conversations, breakthroughs and breakdowns.”
At the meeting Monday, MDI High School Principal Matt Haney acknowledged the concerns. “Students are very good at sensing any sort of anxiety,” he said, but that’s why the plan is to give teachers and staff a few weeks in the buildings first to find their feet and get their questions answered in order to be ready to welcome students with confidence. It will give teachers, staff and administrators a chance “to put our eyes on each other and talk through how we work through those fears.”
“It’s okay to be scared,” Swan’s Island School Principal Crystal DeGraca said. “It’s our job to pave that pathway to the new normal. It’s not going to be the Industrial Age learning that we have been fighting so hard to get rid of anyway.”
“Education and childcare aren’t the same thing,” Gousse said. “But it’s also a reality that many parents (of younger children) can’t go back to work if their kids aren’t in school.”
“If the schools have put proper protocols in place, as I’m sure they will and have, there should be no more fear than the rest of us that go to work on a daily basis,” parent Monica Jones wrote to the board.
Gousse said he hopes the school system can work with local organizations that provide childcare, possibly providing funding or staff support, to provide a safe place for those younger students to be while they’re doing remote school.
Ingrid Kachmar, a school board member and director of the Harbor House in Southwest Harbor, said her facility accepted children of essential workers when school went remote in March.
“I’ve been telling parents, I’m going to be here for you, but I really don’t even know what that means because we don’t have a timeline,” she said.
At the workshop, she criticized teachers who are saying they don’t feel safe coming back to school but who have participated in large protest marches.
In an email, a group of Conners Emerson teachers called that comment “unfair and inappropriate.”
A survey for parents asking whether they planned to enroll their children for school-based or virtual-only learning was sent out on July 23 and closed Aug. 3. A majority of families, 80 percent, said they would participate in school-based learning, but board members said at the workshop the families might not have had enough information to make an informed decision.
In email comments between Thursday and Monday, many parents said they had changed their minds and plan to choose remote-only after seeing the rise in local cases of the virus since late July.
Leaders of the teachers’ union in Bar Harbor submitted a list of 105 things “what we know will be missing from school for our students in a physically–distanced, mask–wearing classroom,” including singing, having a teacher apply a Band-Aid and engaging in multi-classroom activities.
A survey of school staff was sent out July 28 and closed Aug. 4, two days before the board workshop.
Employee testing at the schools is planned to be similar to the tourism worker testing program; a percentage of staff will be tested regularly as a way to provide early warning of any community spread.
School system staff have already begun fielding questions from teachers and other staff about leave and time off in the event of illness. The employees’ doctors have contacted the school to ask what proof the school would need to show the employee has a health condition that means they shouldn’t be working in school in person.
“Requiring teachers to return in such a heightened risk environment should be reciprocated with increased support if a teacher contracts COVID-19 or is required to quarantine,” Pemetic teacher Ed Michaud wrote to the board. “You need to do better than your technical and legal obligation; you must acknowledge the extra risk and ensure a safety net beyond the normal, for we certainly are in an extraordinary situation.”
“Employees may have access to additional leave via FFCRA (a federal coronavirus relief program) or the Family Medical Leave Act,” the presentation given Thursday reads. “Any employee who exhausts their FFCRA leave and/or contractual leave may request a leave of absence.” Requests for leaves of absence will go to the local school board for approval, Gousse said.
He said the questions highlight the need for increased human resources capacity in the schools; the school system currently refers many questions to legal counsel.