After months of intensive planning for students to return to classrooms as safely as possible in the current pandemic, many schools in Maine reopened to students last week. We stopped in to see how it’s going.
Mt. Blue Middle School, Farmington, Regional School Unit 9
The hallways at Mt. Blue Middle School in Farmington were quiet and empty. Orange markers painted on the floor reminded students to practice social distancing and flat screen TVs mounted to the walls streamed COVID-19 notices.
Sixth grade teacher Tracy Knapp sat in front of her laptop, alone in her classroom with her head sandwiched between a model of the Earth and the sun as she lectured her online students.
The middle school has 539 students enrolled this year, with 386 attending hybrid classes and 153 opting for a fully remote schedule. Classroom sizes range from 9 to 13 students, while other classrooms were empty except for a teacher broadcasting to remote learners.
“As a veteran teacher, the kids have been awesome; they’re a lot more resilient than adults,” physical education instructor Peter Franchetti called out in the gym, where six students stood 3 feet apart waiting patiently to be dismissed.
The middle school is focusing on non-contact sports and kicked off the first two weeks with archery lessons. Students were paired off outside in the athletic field with masks on, pointing their bows at targets.
Assistant Principal Katie Duchesne walked through the school with a color-coded schedule showing the staggered lunch times and class schedules of the district’s hybrid model. At 11:58 a.m., the first group of 13 students entered the cafeteria in single file, received a pre-assembled lunch tray with pigs in a blanket, fruit cups and a carton of milk, then took their seats at individual desks spaced 6 feet apart.
The students removed their masks and mostly kept to themselves while eating, with only a few students twisting around in their seats to chat with a peer. The RSU 9 hybrid schedule divided students into two cohorts based on last names that rotate in-person class days.
Principal James Black said that they’ve noticed considerably fewer behavioral problems and that students seem to be taking advantage of in-person school days for much needed socialization even if they have been separated from their usual group of friends.
“They make better connections because they have less time to make connections,” Black said. “They haven’t had any opportunity for socialization.”
— Andrea Swiedom, Sun Journal
Meroby Elementary School, Mexico, Regional School Unit 10
Kim Fuller, principal of Meroby Elementary School in Mexico, said the students attending class have been really patient, respectful and following the rules.
Things have gone surprisingly well in terms of kids getting in and out of the building and following all the safety protocols, she said, and the teachers worked well together in trying to problem solve even before kids came into the building.
Fuller noted that teacher interaction with the students is different because they have to be six feet apart.
“Teachers with the littles, particularly kindergarten and first grade, actually wear the mask and the shield, so if they need to get in proximity of a student, then they can do that,” Fuller said.
But the school also has about 75 kids who are taught remotely. “That piece has been trickier, trying to get devices out and getting things ready,” noted Fuller.
“Teachers are having to do dual roles. They have to teach kids in front of them as well as doing the remotes. A lot of those kinks are being worked out, and I know it will get better. I think that’s probably been our biggest challenge,” she said.
“Teachers have been working so hard. We had that week before school to prepare, which was really great. It takes a lot of energy to keep kids engaged while your teaching as well as the kids on the screen. It’s more stressful for the teachers,” said Fuller.
An hour-long block at the end of the school day has been reserved, a time when teachers can do some lesson planning and touch base with the children learning remotely.
On Sept. 16, the school was to begin the first of their Remote Wednesdays, which are the days Fuller said teachers really can connect with their students that are remote and their families and try to troubleshoot things and meet with kids to see how they’re doing with their work.
“Kids that are in school will take their laptops or iPads home with them on Tuesday evening, and then be prepared to do their remote learning on Wednesday, along with the remote kids,” she said.
“Right now, we don’t have all the technology for our kids that are in school to be home remote,” she added. “So we’re giving them more of a traditional paper, pencil, packet that they’ll do tomorrow. But we’re working to get those other computers set up so that everybody will have their computers.”
— Bruce Farrin, Rumford Falls Times
Spruce Mountain Elementary School, Jay, Regional School Unit 73
A short walk along a path marked with fluorescent orange ribbons leads to an open area where sections of logs are spread out. The logs are seats for students from nearby Spruce Mountain Elementary School, and the clearing is their classroom.
The outdoor classrooms in the woods behind the school are one way art teacher Tamara Lindsey and music teacher Dan Labonte are making the most of learning amid a pandemic.
Wednesday morning, Lindsey joined a group of fourth grade students in the hallway of the school and walked with them into the trees. She told her students they could either sit on the logs upright, as they were, or turned onto their side.
With proper distancing between the log seats, Lindsey showed the students how to remove their face masks and clip them to their artist boards.
The students were then given instructions on how to create a self-portrait.
Back in the school, guided by Principal Pat St. Clair, a stop was made to use hand sanitizer from the dispenser just inside the door. The room the fourth grade art students had been in earlier was empty with the few desks spread apart.
“They’re spaced for eating, mask breaks,” St. Clair said. “Only 40 can be in the gym at once at 6 feet (the space students must maintain while eating or with masks off). There’s not enough room.”
“It’s just different. It’s so much quieter with half the kids,” St. Clair said. “It’s not something I ever thought would happen. We’ll make the best of it, do what we can for the kids.”
Later, St. Clair emailed questions to his teachers and returned responses from two.
Kids at home have said it is very odd for them to see the buses go by and not get on it, but have also said it is nice to be able to just stay home and see each other on Google Meets, one teacher responded about the return to school.
As far as remote learning, it is definitely a big adjustment for everyone, but the students and families have been patient and understanding in the sense that everyone is learning to navigate the technology, another teacher replied.
For the first teacher, the most challenging thing is that everything that the kids must now do is completely new to them — and new to the teachers, too. The teacher said hours and hours have been spent watching videos on how to do what is expected and to learn how to use the numerous programs.
The second teacher is instructing students who are learning entirely remotely. She admitted sticking to the distance requirements would be a challenge. Meetings with children take up at least 3 hours plus an additional 3 to 4 hours for planning daily.
The first teacher comes to school at least one hour early, stays another hour or two after the kids leave and puts in time on nights and weekends.
“I can’t wait until the day we can have all the kids back in school and everything return to normal,” they said.
As of Sept. 10, the elementary school had 118 students in cohort A, 120 in cohort B and 70 learning remotely.
— Pam Harnden, Livermore Falls Advertiser
Mountain Valley High School, Rumford, Regional School Unit 10
At Mountain Valley High School in Rumford shortly after 11 a.m. on Thursday, seniors Ashley Hussey, Keagan Pitcher, Cooper Davis and Caleb Frisbie were just finishing up their senior English class taught by Meg Doughty, who teaches them remotely and who the students watch from a screen at the front of the classroom.
While Doughty is in a meeting and not on screen, the four students and their Educational Technician Paige Berry and substitute teacher Ryley Flynn take a few minutes to talk about how they are managing in their second week of school.
Pitcher comments that having to “stay six feet apart with face masks on is ‘way’ different.”
Davis and Frisbie say how they’ve been “pretty much” adjusting, and they “just get their school work done and leave during their lunch break,” which both seniors and juniors at MVHS are allowed to do.
Each of the students in the classroom agreed that the hardest part of being back at school this year is wearing masks. “It’s just hard getting used to,” Davis said.
Berry said that the most challenging aspect of teaching this year is balancing teaching online with working with the students that are in the classroom. She also thought that keeping students distanced in the hallways was “tricky” at times because “people naturally really want to come together,” she said.
Flynn said that “for the most part (in class technology) has been running smoothly, but it has its days when it’s not.”
As the bell rings and the students and teachers go to lunch, 20-year veteran teacher Todd Papianou takes a walk around the back of the schoolyard, where many students are sitting to have lunch. All around on the ground are painted circles, indicating safe six-foot distances for students to interact with one another.
“So far I have had an awesome day. Yesterday was a great day, too, but yesterday I had this overwhelming feeling of that weight on your shoulders, with some of the reports of COVID in the neighborhood. Today not so much,” Papianou said.
When asked why he was feeling better today about the COVID situation in the area, Papianou explained that it was “because the schools in the area did the things they need to do and followed the CDC (protocols).”
Much of Papianou’s work recently has been to learn and teach others about how to do an inventory of outdoor spaces to use for teaching, he said.
“We create a little map for people and say, ‘Here’s where you might want to try to teach; here’s where you want to avoid.’ It’s as simple as I stand here so you’re not looking in the sun.
“But if you’re an indoor English teacher that’s been teaching inside for 20 years you might not even (realize) that,” he said.
— Marianne Hutchinson, Rumford Falls Times