Apr. 30—Maine school superintendents are pressing the state for information on what COVID-19 restrictions might be in place in the fall, as the current school year winds down amid tensions in some districts over limits on classroom education.
Steven Bailey, executive director of the Maine School Superintendents Association, said administrators realize state agencies shouldn't be expected to know yet what pandemic restrictions could be in effect, but the issue needs to be raised so school districts aren't scrambling this summer to prepare for the start of school.
"Obviously, the earlier the better," Bailey said. "We don't want it to be that come Aug. 1, we still don't know what we are doing."
State agencies, including the departments of Education and Health and Human Services and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention worked together to develop guidelines for school operations for this school year.
The pandemic restrictions now in place, such as requiring six feet of distance while eating, six feet between staff and students and limiting the numbers of students on buses, have made it difficult for many school districts to offer full in-person learning this year. Most schools have opted for hybrid learning, with students attending school two days per week and learning remotely the other three days.
Returning to five days per week will be difficult for many schools without relaxing the restrictions, according to Thursday's letter to agency leaders.
"We are writing to encourage MDOE and Maine CDC to work as aggressively and quickly as possible to identify possible alternatives to the six foot distancing requirement," the letter said. Some of the suggestions included allowing students to be three feet apart at all times, even when unmasked and eating.
"Schools simply do not have the interior spacing nor the supervisory staff to provide six feet of spacing for the brief time period it takes students to eat snacks and lunch," said the letter, signed by Richard Colpitts, president of MSSA.
What requirements will be in place for schools this fall is unknown, although the Mills administration has been easing pandemic restrictions in other areas, including this week repealing the outdoor mask mandate, and earlier this spring increasing gathering limits indoors and outdoors and relaxing rules for restaurants and bars.
Jackie Farwell, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said Friday state health and education leaders will be working with school districts to devise a plan for this fall. No timetable has been set for when the plan will be decided.
"The Mills Administration recognizes the importance of in-person instruction for a child's social, emotional, and educational growth, and shares the goal of getting those students who are not already in the classroom back for full-time learning as soon as possible," Farwell said in a statement.
"We continue to review emerging scientific evidence to support health and safety measures that promote in-person learning in Maine schools, the changing trajectory of vaccinations and whether they become available to people younger than 16, as well as the U.S. CDC's latest recommendations, and take steps to adjust our guidance as necessary."
In February and March, after the pandemic came down from its mid-January peak, some parents started petitioning schools for more in-person learning this spring, with complaints surfacing in Cumberland-based School Administrative District 51, Portland, Falmouth, South Portland and other districts.
Some schools increased in-person learning, but others said they could not without bucking the guidelines. One parent in SAD 51 has filed a lawsuit seeking for a faster release of public records surrounding decisions on remote learning, to make sure the records are public before what is expected to be a contentious June school board election.