BAR HARBOR — Elementary school students in the Mount Desert Island Regional School System will get every Thursday afternoon off during the second half of this school year, starting Jan. 7.
That is to give their teachers time to plan, prepare and collaborate.
The school principals and other administrators proposed the change to reduce the stress on teachers caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The school system board voted 17-0 Monday night to approve the 11:30 a.m. release of students on Thursdays.
“In my 40 years in education, I have never seen staff work harder, but they are exhausted,” Barb Neilly, principal of Conners Emerson School in Bar Harbor, told the school board.
“I had eight people out today. We’re not going to survive with eight or 10 people out.”
Pemetic Elementary Principal Rhonda Fortin said there are a number of reasons that teachers are stretched to the limit as a result of COVID-19.
“We have people teaching things they have never taught before; we have people who are teaching the same content they have for years, but in completely different ways because of the 6-foot distancing; they are learning technology that they didn’t even know existed a couple of months ago,” Fortin said.
“The students deserve the best instruction that we can provide, and the teachers now are right out straight. They are doing the best they can, and they want to be doing better.”
She said giving teachers a half-day each week to plan, prepare and provide mutual support “is going to mean a lot for our kids.”
That sentiment was echoed by Crystal DaGraca, principal of Swan’s Island School, and Jandrea True, principal of Tremont Consolidated School. True said that giving students a half-day off each week is common practice in some other school districts.
“They get great results,” she said. “It’s beneficial for teachers and students.”
The early release of students on Thursday will only apply to elementary schools.
“Despite working under similarly strenuous conditions as their high school counterparts, K-8 teachers do not have the same amount of planning time as the high school teachers do, and the high school teachers do not feel that they have any extra time,” said Julie Meltzer, the school system’s director of curriculum, assessment and instruction.
School administrators and board members acknowledged that releasing students at mid-day once a week could place a burden on some parents, who might need to take off work or try to find childcare. But they said that, overall, they felt the benefits to teachers and students would outweigh the potential negative impact on families.
“We have been in touch with partners including Harbor House, the YMCA and Camp Beech Cliff, and they are all examining what they would be able to do to support working families,” Meltzer said.
Four faculty leaders at Conners Emerson had asked the school system board to eliminate a half-day of instruction each week.
“We are sincerely worried about the mental wellbeing of our staff,” Bryan Dionne and Edith Korstanje, Conners Emerson’s health and wellness ambassadors, said in a letter to the board.
“Our teachers and staff are doing an amazing job to keep our students safe, happy and educated. But we do need to realize what an intense pressure this is on the teachers. Much of what they knew about teaching has to be changed and adapted to the new way of teaching ‘corona style.’”
They said the early release of students once a week would allow teachers to “regroup, plan and adapt within some of the hours they are paid for rather than sacrificing even more time on nights and weekends.”
Brian Boardman and Amanda Dyer, co-presidents of the teachers association at Conners Emerson, said in a separate letter to the school board that they strongly support the early release proposal.
“Being a teacher is more demanding than it has ever been,” they said. “Having a half-day every week will give us time to meet with colleagues and plan more deeply to meet each student’s unique needs.”
Boardman and Dyer told the school board that they believe in-person learning is best for students.
“And we would like to stay in-person for as long as it is safe to do so. We know that half-day each week would be impactful to our community.
“However, what’s best for families must be balanced with what’s sustainable for staff…A half-day weekly would help keep all people in our district healthy in body and mind.”
A dissenting opinion was expressed in a letter to the school board from the Wellness Team at Mount Desert Elementary School, whose members are Tara McKernan, Andrea Howell, Emily Damon and Wanda Fernald.
They said schools have been shown to be the safest places for students during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have seen incredible emotional growth, academic progress and, most of all, happiness, since we have welcomed our students back into the school building,” the MDES team wrote.
“We recognize that each school on the island likely has differing capacity to ensure that teachers and staff get what they need for planning purposes, without a one-size-fits-all approach that is not responsive to the individual needs of schools and families.”
The MDES team said that depriving students of three-and-a-half-hours of in-school time a week, which adds up to more than 10 days from January to June, is “not sound educational practice.”
“Our students deserve to be in the school, interacting and learning with their teachers and peers. Parents deserve consistency of schedule so they can continue to work during this time of economic hardship.”
On the other side of the issue, school board members Lilea Simis, Todd Graham and Kristi Losquadro questioned whether a half-day each week would actually be enough time for teachers to plan and prepare. The board discussed the possibility of adjusting the schedule, if needed, in late winter or spring.