The Penobscot Times

Some students will return to full in-person schooling this fall, RSU 34 says

OLD TOWN, Maine — Some students in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and first grade will return to full-time classroom instruction this year, the RSU 34 school district announced Tuesday. 

RSU 34 encompasses five schools in Old Town, Alton and Bradley. 

The district made the announcement after reviewing a community-wide survey about reopening preferences sent to families earlier this summer. The district’s decision also comes days after the state gave schools in all of Maine’s 16 counties the green light to fully reopen in the fall. 

There were 1,182 responses to the district’s survey, which represents about three quarters of the total student population, according to Jon Doty, PhD, the district’s director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment. 

Of the responses, about 85 percent of families said they want their students doing in-person instruction this year, and 15.4 percent said they wanted remote learning only. 

Doty said the district is still working to confirm enrollment numbers for the school year based on individual families’ preferences, but he estimated that 225 students in grades pre-kindergarten through first grade will return to full-time in-class learning. 

Families that prefer to do remote learning for the full school year will be allowed to do so. 

All five schools in the district are basing their potential reopening plans around the state’s requirements for returning to classroom instruction, he said. This will require staff and students to follow a checklist to decrease the risk of spreading the coronavirus. 

Under these stipulations, students and staff are expected to do daily symptom screenings at home before heading to school, wear masks and maintain an appropriate physical distance from others. 

They will also be required to provide students and staff with training on proper hand hygiene, including using hand sanitizer. 

The district is still trying to achieve the same five-day model for additional elementary grades, but not every student may be able to return to a full-time classroom schedule. Full-time remote learning or a hybrid system with two days of in-person classes and three days remote are the only options for students in grades two through 12 currently. 

As of now, students at Old Town High School should plan on a hybrid learning schedule with one group attending in-person classes on Mondays and Tuesdays, and alternate with a second group that will go in on Thursdays and Fridays. 

Students will do remote learning on days they’re not scheduled to have in-class instruction, according to a letter from the school.

In this update, school administrators noted that while it’s good that Maine schools have the green light to move forward with in-person schooling this fall, it’s also deceiving. 

“…. it really means that the best we can do is some in-person learning with all of the distancing and masking precautions. In other words, we can have about half of the school in our building for in-person learning while still abiding by the 6-[foot] distancing that must be maintained between students/staff,” the letter said. 

With the distancing requirements in place, Old Town High School will only be able to accommodate 320 of its usual 540 students at a time. 

Other local schools are facing the same dilemma. 

Last month, Doty estimated that 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  in order to follow the state’s 6-foot distancing advisory.

Additionally, J.A. Leonard Middle School in Old Town could accommodate 170 of its 320 students at once. 

To address this, Doty offered a plan to reconfigure the district’s five schools into 11 separate “learning communities” that can safely accommodate students while adhering to physical distancing requirements. 

In this plan, some students will be moved to other school buildings for their classes. Doty said the district is going to use larger spaces in atypical ways to make this feasible — which could mean using gymnasiums, cafeterias or music rooms as classrooms. 

High school students will be limited to four classes per semester– either remote or in-person — and can get up to eight credits for the year. The school won’t be able to offer all the advanced placement courses that they normally do, the letter stated.

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