On Friday, Governor Janet Mills released guidelines for schools as they consider whether or not to return to in-person instruction this Fall.
Mills’ framework includes a three-tiered health advisory system, which will color code counties based on their perceived level of risk:
- A red county suggests a high risk of COVID spread and means in-person instruction should not be conducted.
- A yellow county suggests a moderate risk of COVID spread and means hybrid instruction models should be adopted.
- A green county suggests a relatively low risk of COVID spread and means that in-person instruction can be adopted, although a district may opt for hybrid instruction if its buildings or readiness make adhering to health and safety protocols a challenge.
Categorizations will be based on “qualitative and quantitative data” including case and positivity rates. The advisory system will be posted on the Department of Education website July 31 and updated on a biweekly basis.
Though the decision is ultimately left to districts, schools that do elect to reopen must follow certain health and safety protocols outlined in Mills’ updated framework.
Adults, for example, are required to maintain 6 feet of distance among others while students are required to maintain 3 feet of distance amongst themselves. During breakfast, lunch or other times when masks are not worn, students must maintain 6 foot distances.
Moreover, groups in any area, room or classroom may not exceed Mills’ group gathering limit, which is currently set at 50 people.
In addition, all students age 2 and above are required to wear masks both in school and on school buses. For students with medical, behavioral or other challenges, face shields are an acceptable alternative, according to the framework.
Other measures include symptom screening before coming to school, practicing proper hand hygiene, and isolating at home if sick.
Mills announced that the state will use $165 million of Federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) funding to implement these new safety measures. This aid comes in addition to the $44 million in federal relief Maine schools have already received.
While Mills’ framework addresses valid COVID-related concerns, some parts feel unnecessary and even counterproductive. Color coding counties, for example, will discourage some schools that could likely safely reopen from doing so.
Take Androscoggin county, for example. Based on higher rates of COVID-19 in Auburn and Lewiston, the state will likely categorize the county yellow or red. While these cities have had 108 and 310 cases respectively, other towns in the county, such as Livermore, Leeds, Turner, Durham and Mechanic Falls have had only 1-10 confirmed cases over the four month period since the virus reached Maine.
Although schools in these lower-risk towns could choose to reopen, it is unlikely they would go against state recommendations.
The costs of keeping schools that could reopen closed is far too high for working families. If children cannot return to school, parents may have to secure long-term childcare. Because excessive state regulations have decreased the number of child care providers––and thus increased demand––these services put a large financial burden on Maine families.
Moreover, when schools in yellow and red counties announce reopening plans, which will likely include online learning for all of or parts of the school week, there will be a sharp rise in child care needs, increasing the supply and demand gap. In short, many families will be left without providers. This could force one parent in a household to quit their job or take less hours to care for their child when they’re not in school.
For those children that do return to school, the mask mandate presents its own challenges. While experts say masks are medically safe for children to wear, what is going to stop a 2 or even 6-year-old from touching, removing, or trading masks with a classmate? Kids will be kids, and in their case, masks may do more harm than good.
The new protocols for schools and changes in K-12 education make school choice in Maine more important than ever. If a parent disagrees with their school’s reopening plan, their current options are to homeschool their child or pay out of pocket to send him or her to private or online school, while continuing to pay taxes for the local school district. Only families that qualify for Maine’s town tuitioning program would receive financial assistance in sending their child to a different school.