Going back to school won’t be as simple as it was before COVID-19

This spring, over the course of a couple of weeks, our entire education system was turned on its head. Across the state, schools closed down and teachers and students scrambled to salvage their spring semester using remote learning technology and innovative lesson plans.

School administrators and staff quickly adjusted their school lunch programs to keep kids fed, and parents adjusted to a new normal that involved their kids being home all the time. It wasn’t easy for anyone, but to their credit, folks seemed to manage pretty well.

Now, with the Fourth of July in the rearview mirror, the start of classes in September is looming around the corner. There is so much to consider and do before we get to that point.

The safety of students and staff is the No. 1 priority as we look to restart classes. First and foremost, schools must do everything they reasonably can to prevent outbreaks of COVID-19 among students and staff. 

While there is some evidence that children are less likely to develop severe symptoms of COVID-19 than adults are, we know they aren’t immune, and the adults they will come into contact with at and after school could still be put at risk.

But keeping students home presents another set of challenges: Distance learning is difficult for many and can take a mental toll; parents who may be heading back into work will have severely limited childcare options; and students will miss out on important opportunities to socialize with their peers.

Perhaps most concerning is that taking students out of school removes one of our strongest defenses against child abuse and neglect, as teachers and school staff are often the ones who report suspected cases to our child protection system.

Ultimately decisions about when and how to return to in-person classes will be up to individual school districts, but the state is working to create sound guidance in order to make this process as safe as possible. 

It’s important that the guidance the state provides reflects the concerns and priorities of parents, students and teachers. To that end, the Maine Department of Education has put together a series of surveys to get a sense of where folks are. You can take the survey online here: maine.gov.

The University of Maine System has released its tentative plans for bringing students back in the fall. Their plan is extensive, and includes significant COVID-19 testing and tracing, as well as isolation procedures for students who test positive. 

Classes will begin as scheduled on Aug. 31. In-person instruction will end and students will be asked to depart residence halls no later than the day before Thanksgiving. The final two weeks of the semester and exams will occur remotely. 

Significant campus space and safety modifications will be made to ensure proper social distancing, hygiene and cleanliness. Students and staff will be asked to take pledges to adhere to science-based practices such as mask-wearing, monitoring their own health, avoiding unnecessary travel and staying home when sick.

 Robust communication and flexibility in instruction will be crucial, and a comprehensive training and support guide has been developed to direct a phased reopening and return to campus operations. 

To read more about the system’s plans for returning to in-person instruction in the fall, visit umaine.edu/return.

If you want to share your thoughts about reopening schools or anything else, please feel free to get in touch. You can call my office at 207-287-1515 or send me an email at James.Dill@legislature.maine.gov. Remember, I work for you.

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