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Local parents discuss school pandemic safety, voices vary

By Christine Simmonds | Jul 30, 2020
Photo by: Christine Simmonds Medomak Valley Middle School

Parents in RSU 40 and RSU 13 would like to see a return to schools in the fall, but are worried about the safety of doing so.

Some said they feel the benefits of opening schools outweigh the potential risks for both students and staff; others fear the safety measures are not enforceable.

“I am 100% in favor of in-person classes,” said Christopher Donlin of Warren. Donlin has two children attending school in RSU 40. “Remote learning doesn’t punch the ticket.”

Donlin feels school is more than just scholastic studies. He said the activities and social aspects of school are also important for students. He does not think that students were getting enough out of distance learning.

Chelsea Crochere lives on Vinalhaven, and has a child entering sixth grade. Crochere said she will be sending her to in-person school.

“Being on the island, it’s different,” Crochere said. “We haven’t had an outbreak here. We’ve had one case and it was contained before it became a problem.”

Kendra Vinal of Liberty has two sons in RSU 40. Vinal said she is “playing it by ear” depending on what the school district decides.

Vinal does feel her children would be more successful with in-person schooling, because they started strong with distance learning, but then “kind of slacked off.”

Kaitlyn Robbins of Cushing is an Ed Tech 3 at RSU 13’s South School. Robbins said she sees benefits to both distance learning and in-person school, and feels the administration is trying to navigate that.

Dan Oakes of Rockland has four children attending RSU 13. Oakes wants school to resume in-person, but not unless it is safe to do so. “I would like to see all the kids resume a normal school schedule as soon as it’s safe,” he said.

If it is not safe for school to start in the fall, Oakes feels RSU 13 should delay the start of school and stay open during the summer to make up for lost time. “It would be impractical for some families to begin the year virtual learning,” he said.

Sherilyn Callahan of Thomaston has a daughter at RSU 13. Callahan said she is nervous about the district providing safe schooling.

“This whole debate is centered around education, yet we are refusing to listen to the advice of highly educated experts,” she said. “There are potential solutions, but sending them back all at once doesn’t seem like the right one.”

“Ideally I would want my child to be educated among her peers… but the world has changed,” Callahan said. “If the state can no longer provide a safe education experience for us, I am prepared to look into home schooling as an alternative option.”

Callahan said if she takes this option, she would return her daughter to public school once the pandemic was over.

As of July 28, Knox County has only 25 cases of the virus, with one death and 23 recoveries since the pandemic hit.

Donlin said the risk of illness is not great enough to continue another year of distance learning.

“I don’t want to see an outbreak,” he said. “Considering where we are and the number of cases… the risk is not equitable.”

Donlin acknowledged that it was easy for him to support in-person schooling because of the low number of cases in Knox County. “If we lived in an area that was affected more widely, that would be something different.”

Crochere echoed that sentiment. “If it was anywhere else but Vinalhaven, I’d be more apprehensive,” she said. “Unless there’s some extreme jump in cases in Knox County or on the island, (my daughter) will be in school.”

Vinal agreed that if the rate of infection locally stays down, she would feel comfortable sending her kids to school. She was concerned about case numbers increasing, though.

Oakes was more apprehensive, even with low virus numbers. “If going back to school could mean even one or two dead kids, they need to think long and hard on it,” he said. “They should be treating the situation with the gravity it deserves.”

It is still unknown exactly what the requirements would be for returning to schools. Some parents are concerned that the schools would not be able to enforce these precautions, though.

Donlin said he is sure that masks and social distancing will both be requirements, as well as monitoring the active cases in the county. He feels these safety measures are achievable, as Athletic Director Matt Lash has been running a successful athletics program this summer.

Donlin also said this program required both masks and social distancing, as well as a form regarding a child’s health each day. “There are precautions you have to take,” he said.

Several parents expressed concern about social distancing in particular. Vinal said she does not feel like children would be able to follow social distancing rules.

Oakes agreed that social distancing would be a challenge. “Adults can’t do social distancing in the supermarket,” he said.

Callahan also had reservations about the effectiveness of social distancing in schools. “I can’t see how any preventative safety measures will stop kids from being kids,” she said. “Kids like to play, hold hands and hug.”

Robbins has been teaching summer school both virtually and in person during the last month, and said the program has been enforcing social distancing and masks. “Everyone does the best they can.”

Robbins said RSU 13 staff have taken a lot of surveys about what they would like to see in the fall, but feels “there is no pressure on the staff” to be supportive of one option over another.

Some parents were worried about the overall safety of teachers, though Robbins said she personally felt safe.

Vinal and Callahan both said they were concerned about a shortage of teachers, as well as the ability to find substitute teachers in the event someone does become sick.

Oakes said teacher contracts should not be affected if they do not wish to teach in person.

He worried that educators could get sick if schools reopen too quickly. “The teachers are the ones at actual risk of dying from the disease,” he said.

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