Education

Waterville-area school district plans to bring students back to school full-time

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In mid-August, the board of directors of Regional School Unit 18, a school district spanning five towns just west of Waterville: Oakland, Belgrade, Rome, China, and Sidney voted to proceed with a plan to return students to school this year, which is scheduled to begin Monday, August 31.

Nine of the 10 members of the board voted in favor of the plan with one abstaining. Although the district will offer in-person instruction five days a week, parents will have the option to choose remote learning for their children. Any student taking the remote option will be given a laptop or tablet by the district.

In a letter to parents, district leadership described the extra precautions that would be taken in order to facilitate in-person classes. These include installing extra hand sanitizer stations and ventilation systems, spacing out seats on busses and in classrooms, splitting students into cohorts to manage potential close contacts, and utilizing outdoor spaces for teaching.

Nancy Mitchell, co-president of the RSU 18 Education Association, the district’s teachers’ union, addressed the meeting on behalf of her union and a “majority” of the district’s collective bargaining units. She described the district’s back-to-school plan as falling short of Maine Department of Education (DoE) standards, but this claim is misleading. 

Maine DoE has provided guidance to districts with a county-by-county, green-yellow-red light system to determine which would be safe to reopen based on the state’s interpretation of COVID-19 data for each county. As of now, the Department has designated all counties “green,” meaning that all districts can pursue an in-person system as long as they adhere to extra safety, sanitation and social distancing mandates. 

While many districts are adopting plans more heavily-tailored toward hybrid learning, the DoE’s rules do not prohibit districts from bringing students physically back to school while under a “green” light.

The DoE’s mandates for school districts to provide in-person learning include mask-wearing for staff and students 5 years of age or older, enhanced disinfection practices and keeping at least a three-foot distance from others, or six-foot distance without other precautions. In addition, the department requires school nurses to use eye protection and face coverings when interacting with students, as well as requiring that “classrooms and/or areas that have been used by an individual diagnosed with CaOVID-19 [sic] must be closed off until thorough cleaning and sanitization takes place.”

By all intents and purposes, RSU 18 is following the state’s guidelines and mandates. As Mainers pride themselves on local control and community-level decision-making, it is important to maintain the autonomy of local school boards. They are connected to local students and parents on a much deeper level than to the state’s DoE.

But, given all of this, why would RSU 18’s teachers’ union think that their district is not doing enough to keep students and staff safe? What more can be done when measures of COVID-19 severity, as promoted by Governor Mills and CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah, have been very low in Maine for a month or longer?

Our active cases have remained at a stable level for a month or more. With COVID-19 hospitalizations and other key markers of severity declining significantly since then, the state’s capacity for care is higher than it was before the pandemic. Currently, the 7-day average of new hospitalizations in Maine due to the virus is one person. According to a recent FirstTrust report on national trends related to COVID-19, national hospital capacity is lower than the average over the last 10 years.

Recent data might give us a clearer picture of what could be driving the decision-making of school districts all over the country. Corey DeAngelis, Director of School Choice at the Reason Foundation reviewed the reopening policies of school districts around the country and found that a district’s level of union representation was more likely to determine school reopening plans than by local transmission of the virus.

He used data compiled by Education Week and found that school districts in states that require public school teachers to join a union as a condition of their job are much less likely to reopen for in-person instruction, despite the recommendations of many pediatric medical experts to bring children back to in-person instruction.

In “right-to-work” states, employees cannot be compelled to join a union as a function of holding their job. DeAngelis found that, “about 38 percent of school districts in right-to-work states have decided to offer full-time in-person instruction, whereas only around 13 percent of school districts in states that require union membership are offering the same.”

Overall, he finds that, “The relationship between unionization and reopening decisions remains substantively and statistically significant even after controlling for school district size and coronavirus deaths and cases per capita in the county during the month of July.” Unfortunately, it seems that the value of safety has given way to the pull of politics. 

It is unlikely that Maine people will hear admissions from Governor Mills and Dr. Shah that spearheading a devastating statewide economic shutdown over a virus which they claimed was very contagious, could be deadly for anyone, and for which no immunity exists was a mistake. Now that recent science has debunked these misunderstandings, even the U.S. CDC estimates that ten times as many people have been exposed to the coronavirus. So too, are teachers’ unions unwilling to relinquish the power they currently wield over Maine families. 

It’s time to put fear aside and rationally consider the level of risk that we are willing to accept in our daily lives, and the lives of the next generation. It’s time that we focus the priorities of our educational system on what is best for children, instead of tailoring it to adults. 

We will never be able to eliminate all risk in our lives. Considering the data and available evidence on the coronavirus, we must retain as much of a regular routine as possible for today’s young children. We all rely on them to lead future generations.

About Nick Murray

Nick Murray, of Cornish, currently serves as Policy Analyst with Maine Policy Institute, writing, researching, and bringing Mainers together over the issues facing the state. Previously, he served as Outreach Coordinator, planning events to spread the word about Maine Policy's work to new audiences around Maine.

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