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Fall is coming, and decisions on school reopenings should come sooner than later

Now that Governor Mills has signaled through her executive orders that the 2020 summer tourist season was over before it began, the question turns to the 2020-21 school year.

The Education Committee recently met to hear from the Commissioner of Education and department staff. Originally scheduled as a two hour meeting, only five minutes of their presentation was devoted to the future and whether or not, and how, schools will reopen in the fall.

Most of the meeting time was devoted to updating members on what state officials have been doing since the lockdown began in March. That was important from an oversight point of view, but not geared to what is on the minds of parents, school officials, and children.

The Commissioner stated that the final guidance on what it would look like for schools to reopen will likely not occur until a draft plan due August 7, some three weeks before school is supposed to start.

Based on what I am hearing from parents, local school officials and others whose businesses and organizations are associated with the school year, that will not be enough time.

Parents, schools and businesses need to know well before that date in order to avoid the disruption the Governor has already caused with her arbitrary mandates and short-notice decisions.

Think of the three county restaurant fiasco, but on a massive, statewide scale. From September until June, our economy and social networks are organized around the school schedule. I am increasingly hearing from parents and the businesses and organizations that employ them, that there must be adequate notice to prepare.

It has been clear for some time, to almost everyone but our governor, that Maine largely avoided the projected impacts of the coronavirus. Mainers did the right thing when asked to flatten a curve that, thankfully, never came.

Together, we learned a lot. This will be applied going forward and the government should direct the bulk of its attention on institutions that serve our elderly population.

The governor should send a message now that schools will reopen in September so that planning can start. There are so many things that need to be figured out for schools and parents.

Recently, I conducted an unscientific poll of constituents on reopening school in the fall. Over 99 percent said yes, school should reopen in September. They openly shared with me their thoughts on what it should look like.

The commissioner of education did say a couple of things we should all remember, in response to questions from committee Republicans.

First, Commissioner Makin stated that decisions on whether or not to reopen schools will be made at the local level. This declaration came after press reports that the Governor and state officials alone would make that decision.

Even if press reports are inaccurate, the Governor through her unilateral ability to limit the size of gatherings to 50 or less, can effectively close Maine’s largest schools.

The second interesting statement made by the commissioner was that school districts choosing to exercise their local control over the education of children would not be financially penalized for noncompliance with the governor’s decisions. I hope that both of the commissioner’s assertions turn out to be true.

My concern is that one-size-fits-all decisions made in Augusta will treat rural schools like those in large American cities with COVID-19 hotspots.

Maine is large enough that rural areas with a near complete absence of coronavirus should not be locked down without a clear scientific justification that includes the number of deaths associated with keeping Maine’s economy depressed.

The sooner we decide that our goal is to reopen schools in September, the sooner we can begin to make the tough decisions regarding how we will make that happen and make financial adjustments now before things get worse financially.

Readers should continue to make their views known to the governor, speaker of the house and senate president until such time as they allow the legislature to go back into session and speak on behalf of the Maine people.

We need to stop making decisions based on unsubstantiated fear and political calculations. If we set a goal for opening schools in September, we can make that happen safely, together.