Capt. Albert Stevens Elementary School third grader Emma Hubbard, 8, stepped onto school grounds Sept. 2 for the first school day since the coronavirus shut down Regional School Unit 71 schools last March.

Wearing a pink face mask, just one of many safety mandates the district is implementing this year, she chatted with friends in her class while waiting for faculty to lead her into the school. She said it was “amazing” to see friends she had not seen since school closed down, but she was “nervous to see new faces.”

Most kids appeared to be respecting the requirements for masks and keeping 3 feet away from others as they met in small groups by teacher, then were led into classrooms.

Once all students were inside, child chatter could be heard through open windows and the nostalgic smell of pencil shavings and Elmer's glue could be sensed from outside the building, giving the impression of an almost normal first day of school.

But for Emma’s mother, Annie Cunningham, knowing that a coronavirus outbreak could occur in the district despite safety mandates adds a level of stress compared to previous first days of school.

Cunningham made the difficult decision to send her kids back to school after they requested it, she said. It would have been difficult for her to continue remote learning if she had kept them out and she probably would have had to get another job. But she will still consider pulling them out of in-person learning if she feels conditions are too unsafe.

She said she had to fight car traffic at Troy Howard Middle School to drop off her son, Zen Hubbard, 11, who just started sixth grade, before taking Emma to CASS. Getting ready for school that morning seemed more trying because she had to check her kids' temperatures and make sure they had the required personal protective equipment for school.

Most parents are choosing to drive their students to school instead of packing them onto a school bus, where social distancing would be particularly difficult, CASS Principal Glen Widmer said.

He stood outside the school and greeted students and parents he had not seen since the school switched to remote learning toward the end of last school year. Only about 25% of the school’s students are not returning right now. Widmer said the rate had been lower, but he noticed some parents made a late decision to keep their kids home after a Millinocket wedding outbreak spread the virus between two counties and caused at least three deaths.

There is no way the district can guarantee there will not be an outbreak, Widmer said, but administrators and staff have spent a lot of time considering all safety issues and he feels confident that the school can safely reopen if precautions are followed.

Emma said she did not see many kids taking off their masks during the first day of school and she forgot her mask was on shortly after class started. The school gave students five-minute mask breaks outside every hour.

Zen said he was glad to be able to start school this year. It feels like a fresh start, he said, and he is excited to have new opportunities.

“I feel like anything I did in elementary school is kind of washed away like a sandcastle and just rebuilding it,” he said.

A new type of instruction

Superintendent Mary Alice McLean echoed many of the students’ observations. She said she is impressed with how well the students are following social distancing, sanitizing and mask mandates in all schools.

The district kept discussion open with parents and published information through many different channels in the community to hear concerns and inform the community about decisions that were made, she said.

Schools K-8 are fully opened every day with safety accommodations, but the high school is only partially reopened. Early on, the school developed a three-tiered plan to accommodate remote learning, partial reopening and full reopening options, called the red, yellow and green light plans, respectively.

The high school was left under the partial reopen tier because the building is not big enough to accommodate all students while social distancing, McLean said.

Only about 15% of students district-wide were successful during remote learning, she said. That low rate was taken into serious consideration when she and the Board of Directors discussed the three-tiered reopening plan. Teachers worked hard to be flexible in developing a curriculum and learning how to teach remotely, but the shift was so sudden that many students still fell behind.

This year, the remote learning model is specially designed for each of three student categories. There is one teacher for all 95 remote K-5 students, who will work with students in groups by grade. There are four middle school teachers, one per major subject area, who will work with remote grade 6-8 students, and remote learning for high school students is tailored to each individual.

With most parents transporting students themselves, buses are more able to adhere to social distancing guidelines, McLean said. This is one situation where the district is finding it difficult to follow social distancing precautions.

The district is still waiting for better guidance from the Maine Principals Association and state agencies about how and when to resume sports, she said. Some sports might have to be modified to accommodate coronavirus mandates. Some extracurricular student clubs and committees will meet remotely until it is safe for in-person meetings.

Should a school-wide or district-wide outbreak occur, each student has a media device for remote learning and the district has hotspots it can send home with students who need them, according to McLean.

If a student or faculty member is discovered to have the coronavirus, the district will respect confidentiality, she said. That might mean entire schools will have to move to remote learning until it is safe to return.

The board has empowered the superintendent to move schools into a different learning category if an emergency decision is required, she said. She emphasized the need for the district to be flexible while the pandemic is still a predominant issue for the country.

“It’s anxiety-inducing being on the front line in education during a worldwide pandemic,” she said. “Things can change and we need to be able to pivot on a dime.”