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Emails show how MEA, other interest groups steered Maine DOE’s COVID-19 response

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The Maine Department of Education (DOE) worked with several interest groups in the state to coordinate COVID-19 messaging and guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic. From March 2020, when schools were shut down due to the pandemic, through the summer of 2020, when discussions about how to return to in-person learning were occurring, the DOE worked with the Maine Education Association and the Maine School Management Association to coordinate messaging, including the definition of an essential employee, protocols for graduation ceremonies, and guidance for returning to school in the fall of 2020.

In a March 3, 2020 email, DOE Commissioner Pender Makin addressed leadership of the Maine Education Association (MEA), the largest public teacher’s union in the state and an affiliate of the National Education Association, and leadership of the Maine School Management Association (MSMA), which describes itself as a “state-wide, nonprofit federation of local school boards and superintendents.” The organization contains the Maine School Boards Association (MSBA) and the Maine School Superintendents Association (MSSA), which both have the same leadership.

“One question that has started to come up is related to the potential of staff taking leave time–how to navigate contractual sick time/paid leave/covering essential responsibilities, etc.,” Makin wrote. “We keep telling people that these will be local decisions, but wanted to give you all the heads up, as positive communication with and among stakeholder groups will be key during situations that could require flexibility and understanding on all parts,” Makin wrote to MEA president Grace Leavitt, MEA executive director Paula Voelker, MSMA executive director Steve Bailey, and MSMA deputy executive director Eileen King.

“If you all have any specific guidance you’re sharing, we’d love to match your collective message!” Makin concluded.

This March 3 email was among the first in seven months worth of correspondence turned over to The Maine Wire via a Freedom of Access Act (FOAA) request and is indicative of ongoing communication between the DOE and other interest groups in the state during that period.

Other interest groups with which the state was in regular contact on the subject of the agency’s response to COVID-19 include Maine Administrators of Services for Children with Disabilities (MADSEC), a state-based nonprofit association representing special education educators and students; the Maine Curriculum Leaders Association (MCLA), a state-based nonprofit that supports professional educators and stakeholders; and the Maine Principals’ Association (MPA), also a state-based nonprofit representing principals. 

On March 13, Voelker sent an email to Makin and Kelli Deveaux, then serving as the department’s communications manager, attaching draft guidance the MEA was looking to send to its members. 

“I am sharing this with you both in the hopes you may have time to review before we send it,” Voelker wrote, adding she hoped to arrange a phone conversation between herself and Commissioner Makin.  

Deveaux responded minutes later.

“Pender has a briefing at noon, and we may have further guidance. Let me connect with you folks–I will shoot a time this afternoon your way!” Deveaux wrote.

MEA’s draft guidance covered responses to questions the union was facing from staff and members, including what to do if a school district lacked a written pandemic response plan, how school closures because of confirmed or suspected COVID-19 cases impacted the state’s required number of learning days, the legal and contractual rights of employees forced to miss work because of contracting COVID-19 or quarantining because of exposure, the privacy rights of workers who contracted COVID-19, and the effect of COVID-19 on anti-bullying and discrimination policies.

On March 12, a day prior, DOE issued a priority notice about its adopted policy of flexibility towards remote school days and cancellations due to COVID-19. While state law requires at least 175 days of school instruction per year, the agency announced it would waive state rules penalizing superintendents and school boards if the decision to close school or switch to remote learning was made in consultation with the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or based on their guidance.

Additionally, the notice advised school administrative units (SAU) that the DOE would not require additional approval for educational continuity plans developed in the case of COVID-19 related school closures, and recommended schools develop two weeks of substitute lesson plans. 

In its draft guidance, the MEA referenced this notice and flagged potential issues the policy may cause relating to employee pay and school budgets, noting it was unknown at the time whether the usage of remote school days would be expanded and what impact this might have on pay, especially for hourly employees. The MEA directed members with questions to their local association.

On March 16, the day after Gov. Janet Mills first declared a state of emergency over COVID-19, John Kosinski, the MEA’s Government Relations Director, emailed Makin the latest messaging the union was sending to its members.

In that message, the MEA stated it asked the education commissioner to be flexible in waiving the number of required school days and that she had agreed to do so. It also states the MEA asked the state to apply for a federal waiver requesting the suspension of mandated standardized tests for the 2019-2020 school year. 

Additionally, the MEA said it was working with the superintendents’ association to ensure all staff were paid during school closures and was advocating for increased flexibility for remote learning days and the use of virtual meetings for educators to minimize time spent in buildings.

The MEA also sent suggested guidance to members, stating it was not condoning any arrangement where educators were in buildings during the shutdown. The guidance also stated the MEA did not recommend educators agree to use sick time to cover time off to care for family members or for individuals in high risk pools, and that it recommended hourly employees agree to help conduct duties outside normal duties, but only if those requests were deemed reasonable.

Kosinski prefaced the forward guidance with a message to Makin, thanking her for a phone conversation the previous evening, and then placing emphasis on the MEA’s desire to have hourly staff paid.

“First, anything you can do to help convey that hourly staff should be paid during this time will be most helpful. Districts are doing very different things in terms of hourly staff. In Mars Hill, teachers and staff have been told they will be fired if they do not show up to work. In other places, hourly staff are being asked to sign up for other jobs in the district. In this time of tremendous anxiety, conveying to hourly staff that they should be paid is critical.”

Kosinksi continued, saying there was a need for greater collaboration with superintendents and that there had been frustration with “administrators not being collaborative” during a call with MEA staff that had occurred earlier that day.

“The places where collaboration is NOT happening will only discourage productive discussions about how to continue our work for kids during this crisis,” Kosinski wrote.

Finally, Kosinski relayed to Makin that Lisbon’s superintendent had called at least 180 people into a staff meeting. “We should encourage staff to work in very small groups, but we should not encourage large staff meetings to make plans,” Kosinski wrote.

“I am here if you need me and happy to help any way I can…and here is the latest communication we intend to send to members shortly – happy to talk with you at any time,” Kosinski concluded.

Though Kosinski again sent the guidance when it was emailed to MEA membership, Makin did not respond, at least via email.

Over the next few days, Kosinski continued to email Makin MEA updates and raise points of concern he believed the DOE needed to emphasize in its messaging.

On March 17, Kosinski again forwarded an MEA email newsletter to Makin, including many of the same recommendations from the previous day’s email and noting in several places where progress on the union’s recommendations had been made with the DOE.

Appended to a recommendation that public employees and school faculty continue to be paid their regular salary and benefits, the MEA noted they expected “an update from the Commissioner on this item shortly.” 

In the same email newsletter, the union noted that Makin would be applying for a federal waiver, per their recommendation, to waive mandatory standardized testing requirements for the 2019-2020 school year.

“The Commissioner will be applying for a federal waiver, per this recommendation,” the union added to its recommendation that mandatory standardized testing be suspended for the 2019-2020 school year.

Additionally, the MEA noted that it would “speak with the Commissioner of Education to recommend that any educator working with students covered under an Individual Education Plan (IEP) or 504 Plan be held harmless for any provisions of IEP/504 plans that cannot be met as a result of the ongoing school closure and for any period of remote learning.” 

“I’d concur with most everything there and feel the tone is better,” Makin responded, also adding that DOE guidance and updates had been posted on the agency’s website.

Later in the same exchange, after realizing the updated guidance had not been posted because the agency’s communication person had gone home with the flu, Makin followed up, writing she believed MEA officials would be pleased with the update and informing Kosinski that Gov. Mills had “a plan to make an executive order that you will also like.”

Makin was likely referring to an executive order issued by Gov. Janet Mills on March 19, which ordered school districts to continue to pay hourly employees for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year.

Kosinski forwarded a similar email, an MEA update sent in Leavitt’s name, to Makin again on March 18. In addition to providing updates about emergency legislation passed to allow Makin to waive the required number of school days and to continue school nutrition services during COVID-19 related school closures, the email informed MEA members that the union had been working with the commissioner to ensure hourly employees were paid and that DOE would pursue a one-year waiver for federal rules requiring 95 percent of students to participate in assessments.

Again on March 18, Kosinski sent Makin a draft statement from leaders of Maine’s public schools, written as a joint message from the DOE, MCLA, MEA, and the MSMA. The draft statement expressed commitment between the organizations to share information and mirror best practices, and also reiterates their commitment to continue to pay hourly staff.

“I think this is good–and perhaps include the DOE COVID page that has many resources for administrators, educators, and school staff,” Makin wrote in response to Kosinski’s original email the following day. “Also, the content specialists have virtual ‘office hours.’”

Kosinski was not the only MEA official to contact the DOE on March 18. Leavitt also emailed Makin, DOE Deputy Commissioner Dan Chuhta, as well as representatives of the MSMA, MADSEC, MCLA, and MPA, forwarding COVID-19 information the union had been communicating with members, which she said Bailey and Jill Adams, executive director of MADSEC, had asked her to share. 

“It would be appreciated if any communications that your organizations are sending to your members would also be shared,” Leavitt wrote. 

Leavitt also raised the subject of creating a shared message between the DOE and the copied educational organizations.

“Also, it has been mentioned a few times in various conversations about trying to have a shared message. If there is still interest in doing that and we all think it might help, please let us know–I know we are all operating on all cylinders these days, but if we all think this would still be a good thing to do, I hope we can find a way to do that,” Leavitt continued.

King and Courtney Belolan, executive director of MCLA, both replied to Makin’s email, indicating they thought shared messaging was a good idea. Makin suggested setting up a Zoom meeting for later that evening.

Makin also added in another response in the email chain that DOE was posting “brief updates and guidance” on their webpage, which other organizations could check to ensure the messages they were sharing were in alignment.

A Zoom link for a 5 p.m. meeting was sent to members of the MSMA, MADSEC, MPA, DOE, MCLA, and the MEA.

Following the meeting, Kosinski shared the draft statement as a Google Doc with King, Adams, Leavitt, and Voelker.

Suggested edits to the document were made through March 20, but despite expressions of approval in comments left in the draft, the statement was not published.

On March 23, Leavitt emailed King, copying Makin and Bailey. Leavitt was concerned about a school district vote to hold class during April vacation and asked the email’s recipients whether something could be done to delay it.

“Just got word that Massabesic (RSU 57) is deciding by tomorrow whether to teach and work during what was to be April break–though allowing a four day weekend in there–in order to end the school year earlier than they might otherwise. (The Association has notified members that they are taking a vote on it today/tomorrow.) Is there a way to encourage from your end that they hold off on such a decision for a bit? Just seems to be too early to look at this, given that things keep changing. I will try to do the same on our end,” Leavitt wrote.

Leavitt followed up later that day with more information.

“So more info on this–it is not that the decision is being made that quickly–not sure when the superintendent and/or school board might decide–but rather that teachers were being asked to weigh in on the idea. I’m still wondering if this might be something that the superintendent/school board might take some time before deciding and I’m wondering what other districts might be contemplating,” Leavitt continued.

She also asked whether the recipients could talk that Wednesday, March 25.

On March 24, Kosinski sent an email to Makin, Deveaux, and Chuhta, also copying other members of the MEA. Kosinski referenced a March 22 video message Makin recorded to express support for school staff, which he said was “well received.” 

Kosinski also stated that he’d discussed technical questions related to education rules and regulations being disrupted by the pandemic during a phone conversation the previous Sunday, March 22.

Kosinski expressed a desire to be in front of the questions and attached draft guidance MEA wanted to send to their members, which he asked the recipients to review to make sure they were in alignment.

Makin responded later the same evening, indicating she was largely in agreement with the draft guidance but that the DOE did not intend to insert itself into “locally developed and adopted systems.”

On March 30, Kosinski emailed the DOE on two separate occasions. In an email to Deveaux, which copied Makin, CJ Betit, a member of the MEA, and Amy Cookson, Director of External Communications for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, Kosinski asked to speak about DOE guidance released the previous Friday, March 27.

A commissioner’s update from Makin released that Friday touched on the waiving of the minimum number of school days and whether school districts had to individually submit waivers, how SAUs in need of resources could offer remote learning, and which school staff members were considered essential and should be paid. 

It was the latter point with which Kosinski took issue. 

Kosinski’s concern was focused on the line in the guidance that said school employees did not qualify for unemployment benefits, recently expanded by the federal government with the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. 

“We see it a little different, and we were hoping to talk with you about it more and get your take, both on the line above and on the current DOE thinking of essential.”

Deveaux responded the same day and arranged a call to discuss the issue with Kosinski.

Following the call, Kosinski emailed Deveaux and Makin, again raising concerns about the definition of an essential employee, as well as other issues he said were appearing in schools.

“There are a few issues that are starting to raise concerns in the field, and I wanted to talk with both of you with the hope we can be on the same page,” Kosinski wrote.

He also attached a document about the definition of an essential school employee, which, among other things, sought to clarify that though all employees should be considered essential, they should not be required to be physically present unless absolutely necessary.

Kosinski then outlined other “major concerns” he said were “bubbling up.”

On March 31, DOE released a priority notice related to an executive order Mills issued the same day. Among other things, the executive order issued a stay-at-home order, restricted movement to only essential travel, and closed schools through at least May 1.

This executive order was the subject of an email Kosinski sent to Makin and Deveaux the same day it was released. Kosinski wrote he worried the executive order would “generate even more questions in the field regarding school personnel.” As with his emails the day before, Kosinski added he wanted to “try and get ahead of the issue.”

Kosinski also sent guidance clarifying the definition of an essential public school employee. “Below is some guidance we typed up and would like to share—but again, we want to be aligned with [DOE] during this crisis to the extent possible,” Kosinski wrote. He also asked for feedback and suggestions.

DOE began working on this guidance, sharing it with educational organizations for review, on April 1, ultimately releasing a priority notice on April 2.

The definition of essential school employees was the subject of another email Voelker sent to members of the DOE, MSMA, MCLA, MPA, and MADSEC. Voelker attached an updated draft document, similar to the one Kosinski shared the previous day, which sought to clarify the definition of an essential employee. Voelker added MEA was hoping to discuss it at a meeting the recipients had scheduled for later that evening.

“We are deeply concerned about all school staff especially those on the frontlines and the increased anxieties that are developing as further steps are being taken to limit travel and personal contact across the state and by cities. It is truly an issue that has been coming up daily since day one and only intensifies with each new order or proclamation,” Voelker wrote.

“We are hoping that our groups together can find common ground on how staff should be treated and provided for, as we all try to contribute positively to the overall containment of the virus and yet also provide for children. The attached document is our draft of where we think we need to be,” Voelker continued.

Bailey added additional “items of concern” he wanted to see addressed at the meeting, including the status of probationary teachers and timelines for their evaluation that could no longer be included, and school budget approval for new construction or other projects and whose timeline would be affected by closures.

Belolan also asked that an update on the adoption of revised ELA and math standards be added to the agenda.

Education groups and the DOE also met for an update on April 1 and, according to email records, discussed a shared document related to the definition of essential employee. 

That document, which was shared by Deveaux, and which emails indicate Makin and Voelker edited, has since been deleted. DOE did not respond to a request to provide access to the document.

Makin followed up on her edits to the document in an email sent on April 2.

Finally released as a priority notice on April 2, the DOE’s notice defined all school employees as essential, but also stated that the physical presence of employees in school building was “not always necessary.” Citing the DOE, MSMA, MPA, MEA, MADSEC, and MCLA, the guidance also sought to clarify the role of school employees.

“Thank you all again, what an amazing demonstration of leadership and collaboration on behalf of our field,” Deveaux wrote in an email forwarding a final draft of the priority notice to those involved in editing it.

On April 23, Makin sent a message to her assistant, copying a number of other DOE personnel, Bethany Beausang in the governor’s office, commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development Heather Johnson, King, Bailey, Leavitt, Belolan, Adams, and Holly Couturier, executive director of the MPA. She expressed a desire to set up a “specially-focused meeting” with regular stakeholders, DOE staff, and Johnson and Beausang, when appropriate, for the purpose of discussing a return to in-classroom learning and asked that the email’s recipients be invited.

The group was to meet for the first time on April 29 and discuss an agenda laid out by Makin in the email. 

Makin also added that she’d been in touch with Department of Health and Human Services commissioner Jeanne Lambrew, Johnson, and Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Nirav Shah, about the DOE’s intent to develop “an outline, emergency management plans, reintegration plans, educational plans, and other logistics involved in our eventual transition back to in-person, classroom based instruction.”

Makin added that the Maine CDC would not be represented in the group until there was greater understanding “of where Maine is on the trajectory of this virus and its future impact on our state.” However, Makin noted CDC would consult with DOE leadership and join discussions when there was “tangible guidance to share.”

“At this point we are not ready to identify the public health benchmarks that would let us know it’s safe to begin that transition,” Makin continued.

On April 28, Makin followed up with the same group, again sharing more information about the scheduled April 29 meeting.

“We’ll be asking for your thoughts and ideas with respect to a framework to guide our collaborative decision making and guidance around reopening schools for in-person activity and to possibly provide statewide minimum standards for provision of what will inevitably be a hybrid and multi-faceted service delivery model for quite some time (at least for students and staff in high risk categories),” Makin wrote in an April 28 email.

Makin added that the work would be organized “in accordance with the hierarchy of human needs” and would emphasize physiological health and safety; social, emotional, mental health; engagement and connectedness; and academic learning in terms of critical decision points, equity, logistical considerations and needed resources.

“In coming weeks, we’ll build in the specific details that are needed and feasible for all Maine schools, based on input from the field,” Makin wrote in conclusion.

Makin also attached a draft example of a reopening plan from the Yarmouth School Department and adapted from a plan used by San Diego County, California public schools. 

The following day, ahead of the meeting, Makin shared another document, outlining proposed models for responding to and recovering from COVID-19 in public schools.

The document included a summary of where the state was at the time, as well as next steps for the DOE to take when schools resumed in the fall and in the future.

On May 20, Kosinski sent an email to Deveaux and Chuhta, informing them he had spoken to Makin the previous evening and noted that the MEA appeared to be “out of alignment on the graduation protocols the DOE put out and now the summer school recommendations.”

The DOE sought input from the MEA and other groups to craft both sets of guidelines, beginning work on the graduation protocols in mid-April and the summer school recommendations on May 11.

Kosinski asked to be put on the DOE’s communication distribution list, adding he knew Leavitt and Voelker had been given access to drafts of the summer school guidance. 

“If I can be included on those documents I can hopefully try to raise concerns earlier, etc. to prevent any confusion,” Kosinski wrote.

Chuhta responded later that evening, noting Kosinski should begin receiving calendar invites and email distributions.

The same day Kosinski sent this request, the DOE forwarded a draft framework for resuming in-person education to the MEA, MSMA, MCLA, MPA, and MADSEC. The day prior, it shared draft guidance for screening incoming pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students.

On May 28, plans for reopening schools for in-person instruction were once again the subject of emails sent by the MEA to DOE. Leavitt sent a message to Chuhta, Makin, and Deveaux asking about next steps in the timeline for reopening schools.

Leavitt added she knew “a lot of input was gathered yesterday, which was great, so likely some time is needed to incorporate the ideas into the framework, but of course districts are moving forward with plans already.”

“Also, hearing more and more that parents may (understandably) be reluctant to send their children to schools for in-person instruction, and knowing that we will all be working to make remote instruction the best it can be so when/if it’s needed it won’t be implemented in emergency mode, I’m wondering if there might be a PR campaign about ‘back to school’ (whether in-person, remove, hybrid, whatever shape(s) this takes)–something that helps to reassure parents and students that we are ready for this and welcomes people back and encourages them to ‘attend.’ Just a thought,” Leavitt continued.

“Grace, I love this idea.” Makin responded. “We had begun working on plans to do a video for families and caregivers and students to let them know the steps that we are taking and how carefully we are considering medical science and CDC recommendations and how we recognize they all may have plenty of questions remaining and that we are seeking answers to those…ending with: your public schools will be here for you no matter what, and we are doing all we can to be prepared to provide you with a world class education! (Or something to that effect)…,” Makin said.

The guidelines for a return to in-classroom instruction were the subject of multiple emails MEA officials sent to DOE officials between June 1 and the release of the draft framework on June 11.

On June 1, Kosinski emailed Makin and Deveaux, noting he had discussed growing concern about teachers being told to report in-person to school buildings for professional development.

The MEA messaging Kosinski shared referenced an executive order, issued by Mills on May 29, 2020, that increased the limit on the number of people gathered in one place from 10 to 50 and eased restrictions on business closures, but also stipulated that businesses should have employees work remotely to the greatest extent possible. It also referenced the DOE guidance from April 2, 2020 that listed all school personnel as essential employees.

On June 4, Kosinski again emailed Makin and Deveaux, this time also copying Leavitt and Voelker, on the subject of school personnel returning to in-person work.

“As we discussed including yesterday on the 5pm call, we are getting questions about teachers being required to return to buildings and in some cases it has caused concern,” Kosinski wrote. 

He added that the MEA would be sending out guidance, attached to the email, later that day and that Voelker would be following up with King about “areas where this is bubbling up.”

That guidance also advised employees that while essential school functions could be performed in person, “changes of in-person staffing in school buildings should be fairly limited and must still be driven by what is essential and only can be done in person.”

On June 8, Leavitt emailed Makin and Chuhta, copying Voelker and Kosinski, again on the subject of plans to return to in-person learning in the fall.

 “We are hearing of more and more districts that are either underway with plans for the fall or about to start,” Voelker wrote, “We know how much work is involved in thinking all of this through. I was just on a meeting with some members who expressed frustration at not having anything yet from the state, and frustration that they are doing this work only to then have the guidelines from the state come out later on.”

Voelker also inquired when the task force working on reopening guidelines would be releasing its work.

“If there is anyway to predict when the taskforce will have something ready to release—or maybe even just a ‘minimal’ outline of what is being fleshed out could be shared with districts?—something to reassure them that the guidance won’t come out so late as to not be of the greatest use to as many as possible, that would be helpful,” Voelker concluded.

Responding roughly half an hour later, Makin stated DOE’s goal was to send the draft guidance out the following day, June 9, for a “‘final’ once-over” and publicly release it on June 11.

“Like other states, we’ll have ‘draft’ clearly marked on it, because the unpredictability of the virus requires a plan to do ongoing review and revision as needed,” Makin wrote.

“One VERY important note: The DOE’s framework does not replace or negate a district’s plan for reopening. It is meant to be used as a guide–with considerations listed that may be helpful for the districts as a list of considerations for calibrating their own plans/models for reopening. We also know there are likely districts who have not done their own plans…so this can help get them started,” Makin continued.

On June 10, ahead of a stakeholder meeting scheduled for that evening, Chuhta emailed the draft framework for returning to in-person instruction to its stakeholder group, which included MEA, MSMA, MADSEC, MPA, and MCLA. 

Though it is linked in the emails turned over as part of The Maine Wire’s FOAA request, the DOE did not provide access to this document and did not respond to requests to make it accessible.

Following Chuhta’s email and ahead of the stakeholder meeting, Leavitt emailed Makin, Chuhta, and Deveaux about concern that MEA was listed as part of the core planning team that had helped draft the guidelines. 

Makin responded shortly after.

In the documents turned over to The Maine Wire, this is the last time the DOE directly shared or collaborated on guidance and messaging with outside groups for the purpose of coordinating the department’s COVID-19 response.

Communication between the DOE, the MEA and other interest groups continued through the summer and the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year, with the focus of emails shifting from drafting and implementing guidelines to enforcing and clarifying them.

All of the materials The Maine Wire received as a result of this FOAA can be viewed here.

Read More: Maine DOE gave MEA, other groups access and editing privileges to official COVID response documents

Read More: Maine DOE, MEA discussed withholding relief funds from schools that didn’t comply with COVID rules

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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