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Camden area school boards approve back-to-school plan

Many questions fielded at large Zoom meeting
By Susan Mustapich | Aug 11, 2020
Students will return to Camden Hills Regional High School, pictured, and Camden Rockport elementary and middle schools, though families have the option of choosing remote learning only for grades 5-12.

Camden-Rockport and Five Town CSD students will be back in their classrooms this September, based on approval of a 2020-21 school year plan, at a joint school board meeting Aug. 5.

Nine regular members of the two boards voted in favor of the plan for grades K-12, with Sarah Bradley Prindiville voting against it. The two high school students on the CSD Board voted in favor of the plan.

The approved plan brings all students back into their schools in September, based on the current status of coronavirus in the community. Families with children and teenagers in grades 5-12 have the choice of remote learning for their children, according to the plan. Remote learning will be an option for grades 1-4 if there is enough interest from families.

Camden-Rockport Elementary School, Camden-Rockport Middle School and Camden Hills Regional High School have been closed since March 16.

Over 100 people attended the meeting via Zoom video conferencing, a record for any meeting held by the two school districts. The meeting was accessible via Zoom, which allows attendees to participate, but was not livestreamed via YouTube.

More than 75 attendees were school staff, parents and community members, according to minutes of the meeting released Aug. 7.

Officials and administrative staff at the meeting included 10 regular members of the two school boards and two CSD high school board members; District Superintendent Maria Libby and Assistant Superintendent Deb McIntyre; the six principals and assistant principals; Athletic Director Jeff Hart; Director of Counseling Jeremy Marks; and the student special services director and assistant director. Cheryl Liechty, PenBay infectious disease specialist, and Megunticook Teachers’ Association President, Nell Dailey attended and took part in the meeting.

Discussion began with a public comment period, questions, answers and comments that lasted for an hour and a half, before being closed by CSD Board Chairwoman Becky Flanagan.

Many questions from attendees expressed concerns about reopening the schools with all students in the school buildings, rather than with half the student body inside the school at any time, while the other half is at home studying remotely, according to the minutes.

There were questions about the availability of backup filters for the schools' ventilation systems, personal protective equipment, student mask-wearing, class sizes and plans for sports.

Libby talked about how reopening schools with all students is in line with health indicators in the surrounding counties, which the state designates as green zones, and about safety precautions that exceed Center for Disease Control guidelines.

She said surveys show that about 20 percent of families will choose remote only learning, in grades that offer this, which are 4-12.

District plans are also in place for the hybrid model, with students rotating between classroom and remote learning. A remote education model, if COVID-19 indicators again requires school closures, is also required by the Maine Department of Education.

Dailey spoke of the combination of in-person and remote learning "being the more cautious option and giving staff and students time to adapt to the new school setting."

Libby said concerns about the model combining in-school and remote instruction on a rotating basis is that it adds an additional transition and transitions are generally difficult for families and students. She said families are also waiting for students to return to school so they can return to work.

She said upgraded filters have been ordered for all three buildings and PPE is provided for nurses and some staff in special services, while other employees provide their own. She said the start of school would be delayed if needed equipment was not in place.

To aid in physical distancing, schools will use outdoor spaces, spread students out and serve lunch in multiple locations, Libby said. There will be mask breaks, frequent use of outdoor spaces, tents at all schools in case of inclement weather, gyms used for recess, and all-weather gear available to elementary students.

Libby said students have had practice wearing masks. Those who will not wear masks will have to learn remotely, she said.

She introduced Dr. Liechty, who expressed confidence about the many layers of safety precautions the district plans to have in place. She said the "three-foot physical distance recommendation is reasonable when combined with all of the other safety precautions."

The medical community finds masking to be more effective than previously realized and there is little evidence younger children are as effective in transmitting COVID-19, she said, according to meeting minutes.

In reference to what happens if COVID-19 cases emerge within a school, Liechty said the medical community monitors data in real-time and that the school community is in a fortunate situation. "There is still no active community transmission, even after a month into the tourist season," she said.

On the topic of sports, Libby said there will be teams, but the Maine Principal’s Association has delayed its decision on team competition until Sept. 8. CRMS Assistant Principal, Matt Smith said the middle school will not be competing with other teams, but will still practice and conduct drills because of the health benefits of being active.

Athletic Director, Jeff Hart said many teams in the area have been working to create a regional sports schedule in case they are allowed to compete, but the local district's participation has not yet been determined.

Libby said there were be opportunities for teachers' questions during Preparation Days later in August, and parent question and answer sessions will be held before school starts. A survey released in the next couple of weeks will ask parents to choose in-person, remote, or home school, as well school bus or parent transportation options. The surveys will ask parents for varying time commitments to their choice, from a semester for grades 5-12 and through Oct. 2 for grades K-4.

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