The Penobscot Times

RSU 34 board considers three possible school reopening scenarios

OLD TOWN, Maine — To return to a “normal” schooling this fall, the RSU 34 school district will have to make significant changes to keep students and faculty safe and prevent spreading the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. 

The RSU 34 board oversees J.A. Leonard Middle School in Old Town, Alton Elementary, Viola Rand Elementary in Bradley, Old Town Elementary and the Old Town High School. 

Jon Doty, PhD, the district’s director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment, said that the district will need to adopt new procedures if it wants to do in-person instruction such as increasing staff and classroom sizes. 

The Maine Department of Education has given schools a framework for reopening which offers three possible scenarios for the upcoming school year — fully in-person learning, remote learning or a hybrid of the two.

The DOE is expected to come out with more specific guidelines on July 31, which will include a three-tiered system identifying high, medium and low risks of COVID-19 infection in each of Maine’s 16 counties, which will help schools solidify their reopening plans. 

In his presentation to the board, Doty referred to these three options as separate “lanes” for schooling that the district could bounce between as needed. 

He laid out a possible alternating weekly schedule for students, in which one group would have in-person instruction Mondays and Tuesdays, while the other was doing remote learning. 

Wednesdays would be a deep cleaning day for the district to lower the risk of spreading the coronavirus between cohorts. Both groups would do remote learning on this day. Then, the second group would have their in-person class time Thursdays and Fridays.

Doty said the board could consider dividing the district’s five school buildings into 11 separate “learning communities” to bring down the risk of cross-contamination between students and faculty. 

This would mean a group of students would spend the school day in the upstairs of one building, and the other group would be downstairs. 

He asked if the board would be comfortable prioritizing in-person instruction for younger students and those with special needs. 

To accommodate for six-foot distancing between people, the district would also need to double or triple the size of 100 classrooms and triple or quadruple the number of buses and drivers to maintain a safe social distance between students, Doty said.

As it stands, the district’s three pre-kindergarten through fifth grade schools — Viola Rand in Bradley, Alton Elementary and Old Town Elementary — will cumulatively be able to house 418 of its typical 700 students at a time following the state’s six-foot distancing advisory.

J.A. Leonard Middle School in Old Town could accommodate 170 of its 320 students at a time, and Old Town High School would only be able to have 320 of its usual 540 student population. 

The district would also need to extend the school day for health screenings and have a sufficient number of qualified staff to fill in for teachers who may get exposed to the virus and need to self-quarantine. 

Doty said the district recommends parents to begin arranging their part- or full-time childcare options now and start looking for thermometers to do regular at-home screenings. 

At school, students will have their temperatures taken daily upon arrival, and have to wear a mask while inside the building as long as it is state-mandated, Superintendent David Walker said.

Schools will also provide masks to kids who don’t have their own. Walker noted that face shields might be an alternative for students who are anxious about wearing a mask or have a disability that prevents them from wearing one. 

He said the district is also going to try to keep students from the same families together to make transportation easier for parents. Families who want to continue remote learning all year will be allowed to do so. 

The district is also asking families to complete a survey about possible reopening scenarios, to help the board determine a course of action before the fall. 

The first day of school for all students in RSU 34 is Sept. 2, except for incoming freshmen at Old Town High School, who will start Sept. 1.

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