With the opening of a new academic year, not all K-12 students and teachers returned to their classrooms. Those who are teaching and learning remotely say it is a much different experience now than last spring, one that offers both new challenges and new opportunities for innovation.

Superintendents in regional school districts 3, 20 and 71 said they worked to design plans for reopening schools that took into account the concerns and needs of parents and students, and the majority of students and teachers are back in school for at least part of their instruction time each week. Considerable flexibility has been built into these plans to allow families to do what they feel is best for their children's education and safety. Some remote instruction has been retained for all students in each of the districts we talked to.

One theme stood out in talking to administrators and teachers: The biggest change in remote instruction from last spring to this fall is the much greater planning and preparation that have been possible this school year. For the current term they have had the benefit of time for instruction in remote learning technology and to prepare lessons for students who would not be returning to the classroom.

All of the superintendents said they are now expecting the same level of effort and accountability from remote students as those attending in person. Unlike in the spring, there is no pass/fail grading and attendance is taken for remote and in-person students alike. While a few teachers, especially in RSU 71, are working entirely or partly from home, most throughout the county are back in school buildings, even if they are teaching remote students exclusively.

In rural RSU 3, Superintendent Charles Brown said, the district has allowed elementary school students to take laptops home for the first time, and has acquired some Wi-Fi hotspots for families to use at home to get online if they have cell service but either no internet connection or an inadequate one.

In Brown's district and in Superintendent Chris Downing's RSU 20, some teachers are doing double duty, with responsibility for both in-person and remote classes. Downing said some federal coronavirus relief money had been used to hire substitute teachers who can cover a regular teacher's in-person class while he or she is doing remote instruction. Although in RSU 71 teachers are doing either in-person or remote teaching but not both, Superintendent Mary Alice McLean also told us her district planned to use long-term substitutes to help with remote teaching, because there were not enough remote teachers for the number of students.

Brown said one effect of the coronavirus pandemic had been to "broaden the opportunities to engage students and support our families."

Students and teachers also had largely positive things to say about their experience with remote teaching and learning so far this fall; as might be expected, there were noticeable differences in what it was like for different grade levels.

High school

Now in her seventh year at Mount View High School, Carrie Hanagriff teaches ninth and 12th grade English to both remote and in-person students. She said last spring teachers learned "a lot of what not to do" with regard to remote instruction.

Hanagriff stressed that teachers are in a situation with which they have little experience: "We're both teaching and learning," while also working to tailor lessons to two different groups of students.

This fall, she is recording an instructional video each weekend for both remote and in-person students that she posts at the beginning of the week.

She said she and other teachers make extra effort to stay in touch with their remote students. "Communication is huge this year." Still, she said, these students must take initiative and be advocates for their own education more than when school was all in-person.

An example of that initiative, Belfast Area High School sophomore Natalie Hamlin attends all her classes from home. Only her English class is at BAHS; she is also taking three classes from Brigham Young University Online High School and one from University of Maine at Fort Kent.

Like other remote students we interviewed, Natalie said she missed her friends, but added that she thought she would be anxious about wearing a mask at school and "the workload would have been a lot." A soccer player, she said she does not mind wearing a mask on the team bus or the bench. "It just feels different."

She enjoys the flexibility of being in control of her own schedule, and being at home with her dad, Troy Howard Middle School social studies teacher Guy Hamlin, who is teaching from home.

Middle school

Hamlin said he usually teaches eighth grade, but is now teaching sixth and seventh grade remote students, too. He said Troy Howard has dedicated remote teachers for math, science, language arts and special education as well, one for each subject. When his online classes end at noon, he then meets with the other teachers and in the afternoon is available to help students with their work or to talk about problems they may be having.

He likes being able to put small groups of students into breakout rooms on Google Meet so they can have some independence and learn from each other. Hamlin also said the increased structure that has been added to online classes this year helps students who had trouble with focus and time management last spring.

He sees a silver lining in the current situation because, "it really makes us stop and think about how we've been doing things for years." A recent brainstorming session on how students could keep learning if there were a snowstorm that knocked out the power led to ideas like helping a parent fix a generator and learning a new recipe, he said. He finds his online students very engaged.

For the youngest students, "engagement" is the name of the game, and teachers at this level place special emphasis on having a variety of activities to get kids away from their screens.

Elementary school

Sarah Koelbl teaches remote students in grades K-5 at Searsport Elementary School. She teaches primarily from home, going into the school one day a week, she said. Asked about lessons she learned from last spring's remote teaching experience, she said, "Everything flows better when you're prepared." It also makes a difference, she said, that now families are choosing a remote educational experience, as opposed to having it forced on them last spring.

She teaches 50 students, meeting with each group for 30 to 45 minutes at a time, and works with a technology integrator to plan lessons and make sure all the kids have the devices they need. In addition, an educational technician helps during classes. She said spending plenty of time on organization has been important to keeping everything running smoothly.

It has been "liberating" to work with so many different grade levels, she said, calling this both the hardest job she has had and her favorite. She added that remote teaching has given her more scope for innovation, and noted that it is crucial to form a partnership with students and their families.

With her younger students, she integrates activities that get them away from their screens, practicing handwriting or doing outdoor observation. She has found the state Department of Education's MOOSE Modules helpful, too.

At the beginning of the year, she had students practice the ground rules about attendance, muting their computers during class unless it was their turn to talk and so on, and now these behaviors have become habits. Koelbl said she allows time at the beginning of class for off-topic sharing so kids get to talk about whatever is on their minds.

Keltsey Anderson of Searsport, one of Koelbl's fifth graders, said she likes spending more time at home and getting to be with her pets. And she is glad she does not have to worry about infecting her grandparents, who used to take care of her after school.

Kelly Anderson, Keltsey's mother, said she is able to help Keltsey with school work more because she is learning from home. For example, they went outside together for an assignment on looking for different systems in nature. Anderson likes the fact that lessons accommodate different ways of learning.

She said she has noticed that Keltsey is more focused this fall, where before she would sometimes get overwhelmed. She also appreciates the district's flexibility in allowing them the opportunity for remote learning.

Remote teaching is most of what Heidi Bourgeois does this year. She was the literacy coach for students in grades K-5 at Mount View Elementary School, but now she is teaching second and third grade all-remote students as well as doing some literacy coaching with teachers. Her teaching is done from the school.

She meets with students on Zoom Monday through Thursday for lessons that cover reading, writing, science, social studies and math. While remote teaching is challenging, Bourgeois is glad that she and her students do not have to wear masks. She said families are more aware of what the children are learning and how they are doing because they are at home. To get students away from their screens, she plans to incorporate more hands-on lessons in science and social students.

She has been pleased with the parents' engagement in their children's learning and the overall increase in communication with families. She also has enjoyed a lot of support from in-person teachers at Mount View, who have shared materials, resources and lesson ideas.

"We have the mindset that they're all our children," Bourgeois said. "They're not your students or my students, they're all our students."