Education

What will school look like when Maine students return to the classroom this fall?

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According to Maine Department of Education (DOE) Commissioner Pender Makin, ensuring every student in the state has access to full-time, in-person learning for the upcoming school year is her agency’s top priority.

But what full-time, in-person learning will look like is uncertain and may differ between school districts. As Makin noted during an interview on WGAN this week, without a state of emergency in place, the DOE has no authority to issue statewide health and safety mandates in schools.

Maine’s civil state of emergency expired on June 30. Without it, the state lacks the authority to enforce the mandates, such as wearing face masks, it implemented the previous school year. In place of the guidance it used last year, the DOE has adopted federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, which it recommends school districts to follow.

In the event the federal CDC guidance changes, Makin stated DOE and the Maine CDC will meet, evaluate any changes that need to be made, and make new recommendations. Whether these changes are statewide or regional will depend on what is happening in the state, according to Makin. 

The state subsequently changed its guidance for schools following updated guidance from the federal CDC, which now recommends people in schools wear a mask regardless of vaccination status.

While the DOE does not have the authority to force schools to follow its guidance, transportation to and from schools is subject to federal rules. As a result of a CDC mandate, mask wearing will be required on buses and other forms of transportation, both public or private, used by schools. 

Current CDC recommendations for in-person learning include indoor mask wearing at all times for anyone age two or older who is not fully vaccinated, as well as maintaining three-feet of physical distance between all students and teachers.

Some school districts have already announced their intentions to return to full in-person learning this fall. The Bonny Eagle School District has announced it will return to full-time, in-person learning and allow parents to make decisions about whether or not their children should wear masks. They will follow the CDC’s recommendations to maintain three-foot distance between students, and will maintain a six-foot distance between students who are eating. Students in Bath-area schools will also not be required to wear masks.

But not every school district in the state has announced what a return to school will look like in the fall. And the uncertainty could mean parents and students choose to avoid public schools.

Maine schools experienced a significant drop in enrollment last year. Between 2020 and 2021, there was a 4.36 percent decrease in the number of students enrolled in Maine public schools. Schools across the nation experienced a similar decline as a result of COVID-19. According to data collected from 33 states by Chalkboard and The Associated Press, enrollment in those states dropped by 2 percent in 2020. One of the largest drops in enrollment was in kindergarten.

Not all states have released data on enrollment numbers from 2020, but Maine’s drop in enrollment is among the largest of states with available data. 

According to data from March, the number of children who are homeschooled in Maine also grew by 74.08 percent in 2021 over 2020. By school district, the number of homeschooled students grew by an average of 79.68 percent.

School enrollment numbers for the upcoming school year are not yet available.

Another variable that could possibly impact school enrollment numbers is LD 798, a law affecting vaccine exemptions. LD 798, which goes into effect this school year, removes religious and philosophical exemptions to vaccination requirements. 

Beginning September 1, students with individualized education plans who previously sought a religious or philosophical exemption for a vaccine will only be able to maintain that exemption if they present a note from a physician stating they have made the student, or the student’s guardian if they are under 18, aware of the risks and benefits associated with the choice to be immunized. Maine’s vaccination requirements do not currently include the COVID-19 vaccine. The law still allows medical exemptions.

While Maine saw a large drop in enrollment from 2021 to 2020, Maine’s school enrollment has been steadily declining for at least a decade. The number of students enrolled in Maine schools has declined 7.84 percent since 2012. Maine’s population of school-aged children has been declining, down eight percent since 2016.

But despite the drop in pupil enrollment numbers, school funding has increased every year, both overall and on a per-pupil basis. In 2018-2019, the state’s average per pupil operating cost was $12,442.95, an increase from $12,197.95 in 2017-2018. Overall, enrollment in the state dropped 0.13 percent in 2018, 0.6 percent in 2017, and 0.45 percent in 2016.

On July 8, Gov. Janet Mills signed LD 651, an emergency bill designed to stabilize the student count for the purpose of Maine’s school funding formula. The law stipulates that for years funding is being sought, enrollment numbers be counted by averaging the pupil count on October 1 for the two most recent calendar years. This includes students enrolled in alternative education programs. 

However, if a school has experienced a decline in enrollment numbers of greater than 10 percent, enrollment is determined by taking the average pupil count on October 1 for the three most recent calendar years, unless that average is less than the average for the 2 most recent calendar years.

As an emergency bill, the law went into effect as soon as Mills signed it. As a result, it will be used to determine funding for the upcoming school year. 

Another bill affecting school funding levels was part of a carryover order passed by the Maine Legislature on July 19. If it becomes law, LD 1207 would maintain pre-pandemic levels of school funding, even if enrollment has dropped. 

For the 2021-2022 fiscal year, the law would require the commissioner of education to use student enrollment numbers from the previous allocation year to determine operating cost, even if the school’s enrollment has declined. LD 1207 was written as an emergency bill and should it be passed by the legislature by a two-thirds majority in both houses, would take effect immediately.

About Katherine Revello

Katherine Revello is a reporter for The Maine Wire. She has degrees in journalism and political science from the University of Maine. Her writing has appeared in Reason, The Washington Examiner, and various other publications. Got news tips? Contact Katherine at krevello@mainepolicy.org.

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