Green light: Proceed with caution

Aug 06, 2020

On Friday, Gov. Mills gave all 16 Maine counties the green light to open schools this fall, but that doesn’t mean everything can go back to normal.

To open their doors to in-person learning, school districts will need to have plans in place to screen everyone entering the building for symptoms every day, maintain safe distances in the classrooms and hallways and provide hand-washing stations and protective gear to minimize risk.

Many districts will have to use some combination of in-person and distance learning so they have enough room in the buildings and buses.

And every district will need a plan to shift to all-remote learning if there is an outbreak. No matter what plan the district chooses, some parents, teachers and staff will opt to stay away in order to protect their health or the health of vulnerable members of their household.

If getting young people back to the classroom weren’t so important, it might make sense to keep all learning virtual. But in-person learning is vital to students’ health, well-being and educational progress, and the schools should reopen to the extent that they can do so safely.

Maine is one of the few states to be in a position to do this because of the steps taken this spring, which included shutting down the state’s schools, sacrificing spring sports, senior proms, graduations as well as classroom relationships to slow the spread of the virus.

Those sacrifices have made it possible to even consider reopening schools, but it doesn’t mean that there is no risk.

We are still in the middle of a pandemic, which is spreading like wildfire in parts of the country that had previously reported low rates of infection. There’s a lot we don’t know about COVID-19, especially about how it affects young children. But we do know that it passes from person to person in the air, and the best way to slow its spread is avoid spending extended time with large groups, especially indoors. It will be a challenge to design a school program that minimizes those kinds of situations.

This is not just a challenge for school officials. Every student and staff member will go home at the end of the day, and how well they observe safe practices when they are away from school will affect everyone else.

That could be a problem. Regional School Unit 71 Superintendent Mary Alice McLean recently shared public survey results from 699 families who participated in the district’s reopening survey. It found 62.7% of respondents are comfortable with students returning to schools and 22.4% uncomfortable with students returning.

Frequent school disinfecting and hand sanitizer use are supported by 72% of respondents and 43% support reduced class sizes. McLean said she was surprised to find that only 32% of respondents support using face coverings.

With that level of compliance, schools will be vulnerable to outbreaks and won’t be open very long. In this case, the state’s “green light” means “proceed with caution.”

Edited and reprinted with permission from the Portland Press Herald.

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