From early March 2020 through the summer, when discussions about whether to close and reopen schools because of COVID-19 were occurring, the Maine Department of Education (DOE) was in frequent communication with a number of interest groups, including the Maine Education Association (MEA) and the Maine School Management Association (MSMA).
According to documents obtained by The Maine Wire as part of a Freedom of Access Act (FOAA) request, the DOE worked with outside groups to coordinate messaging related to school closures, reopenings, and COVID-19 guidance in schools, and sometimes gave them access to view and edit agency documents before they were released to the public.
In an email sent on March 3, 2020, DOE Commissioner Pender Makin addressed leadership of the MEA, the largest public teacher’s union in the state and an affiliate of the National Education Association, and leadership of the MSMA, which describes itself as a “state-wide, nonprofit federation of local school boards and superintendents.” The organization contains the Maine School Boards Association 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 via a FOAA request and is indicative of ongoing communication between the DOE and other organizations in the state during that time period.
Other education organizations with which the state was in regular contact on the subject of the department’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 and directing interscholastic activities.
On March 20, Kelli Deveaux, then serving as the DOE’s communications director, forwarded a “frequently asked questions” (FAQ) document, which the department was working on to provide guidance related to Gov. Janet Mills’ March 19, 2020 executive order requiring school districts to pay hourly employees for the duration of the 2019-2020 school year, to representatives of the MEA, MPA, and MADSEC.
“We have been working with [the governor’s] office on FAQ for the Executive Order, please take a look and let me know your feedback,” Deveaux wrote.
Bailey responded, writing the document was “exactly the kind of thing” he, Leavitt, Voelker, and King had discussed on a Zoom call earlier that day.
“I think you’ve nailed it. One tweak that might be needed would be that work offered might need to be viewed as work that the employee is also able to do. If there are physical limitations, or other restrictions that an employee may have, some differentiated work might be needed. You may have provided a response similar to this situation when you speak of the ‘healthy employee who has been asked to self-quarantine or …’,” Bailey continued.
Deveaux replied to Bailey with a proposed change to the FAQ incorporating his suggestions.
Bailey made one more suggested change, adding more clarifying language.
John Kosinski, the MEA’s government relations director, also sent a list of suggested changes.
Kosinski also shared a Google Document that put MEA’s suggested changes into the FAQ formatting shared by Deveaux.
Dan Chuhta, DOE deputy commissioner, then organized a Zoom meeting for Makin, Deveaux, and members of the MEA, MPA, and MADSEC tagged in Deveaux’s original email.
Later the same afternoon, after the meeting had taken place, Deveaux informed the group that the finalized FAQ had been posted.
The published document incorporates Bailey’s suggestions and does not include the question about staff members unwilling to work, which was included in the original draft and which Kosinski requested be cut. But not all of Kosinski’s suggestions, including one regarding language tying employee work to CDC recommendations, were included in the finalized document.
On April 16, 2020, Courtney Belolan, executive director of the Maine Curriculum Leaders Association, shared a draft of a joint statement about evaluating learning with representatives of the DOE, MSMA, MEA, MADSEC, and teachers from around the state, including the Mount Desert Island Regional School System and the Auburn School Department.
“Here is my go at a draft statement of a joint statement about evaluating learning. You all have editing rights, so PLEASE go in and edit, revise, suggest, etc. I know it needs help!” Belolan wrote.
Bailey was the first of those tagged to provide edits.
Bailey also informed Belolan and others with editing access to the document of his changes, writing that he shortened the document and limited the number of recommendations for grading to two, as he believed that “shorter might be a little better.”
Belolan incorporated Bailey’s changes, as well as suggestions made by Leavitt of the MEA.
Leavitt also provided feedback on the draft, informing Belolan via email on April 17, 2020 that the MEA approved of the guidance, with changes removing proposed recommendations SAUs follow in adopting COVID-19 grading policies.
“MEA is good with this (removing the parts at the end that you suggested removing about pass/fail/incomplete, etc). As for next steps, is this something that we all share out ? Has DOE weighed in? Does it come from DOE with all our names on it? Not sure, but I agree that sooner is better than later,” Leavitt wrote.
Belolan responded, noting that Holly Couturier, executive director of the MPA, had suggested adding language stating failing students was not an option.
“I agree with that sentiment, but I think everyone would have to agree, including DOE. I have not heard anything from [Deveaux, Chuhta, or Makin.] My hope is that this can be a priority notice,” Belolan wrote.
Bailey then followed up once more.
“I am not for giving failing grades, especially with the last third of the year even a possibility for students. SO I’ll need to look at the wording again and also see where DOE weighs in,” Bailey wrote.
Several days later, on April 20, Deveaux made edits to the document.
On April 21, Deveaux forwarded a test email of a DOE priority notice containing the messaging about grading requirements.
“I am going to send tonight to superintendents, and tomorrow to a broader audience. Let me know if you would like to coordinate a time (if you plan to share out as well) and we can set one,” Deveaux wrote. “Just want to make sure everyone had a chance to review prior to hitting send.”
DOE sent the finalized priority notice on April 22.
In May of 2020, DOE solicited input on draft guidance from interest groups on multiple occasions.
The first of these occurred on May 5 when Deveaux forwarded an embargoed draft of a priority notice sharing COVID-19 guidance for high school graduations to representatives from the MSMA, MPA, and the MEA.
“Folks, take a quick look, please and thank you. I would like to send tonight,” Deveaux wrote.
Addressing King and Voelker, Deveaux added she “just needed [an] okay that your org. is listed as a help in this.”
The notice, which was to be sent to superintendents only, provided guidelines for high schools to follow in planning graduation ceremonies.
In addition to addressing requirements put in place by Mills’ executive orders, including gathering limits, physical distancing, masking and quarantine requirements, the notice provided guidance for in-person and drive-by graduations, as well as other virtual options.
The draft release also included a list of organizations that had provided input used to draft the guidelines.
About an hour after Makin solicited feedback, Voelker responded, asking MEA not be included in the list of organizations that provided input.
“While many concerns we have were addressed, some remain. In particular, we know of places where staff have been required to attend graduation in the past and might likely be now despite the circumstances. If language were included around staff being offered the opportunity to volunteer to assist that would be helpful. We also continue to support all of our previous unified guidance that addresses the end of the school year and assessing the essential nature of work that needs to be done immediately,” Voelker wrote.
“If there were additional time to work on this, we would definitely make time do so whenever was possible for others. If not we understand that school districts want guidance to help address and inform decisions around graduation ceremonies,” Voelker concluded.
“Okay, thank you Paula–on the copy I send tomorrow (it is in embargoed status for superintendents to review) I will pull MEA off. Given the strict limits on numbers of 50 or fewer people, I would hope that SAUs are not using precious seats to compel educators to attend, but I fully understand your concern,” Deveaux responded.
DOE released the finalized priority notice the next day, on May 6. In place of the list of organizations that had provided input, from which MEA requested to be removed, the DOE included a preface to the guidelines noting that a group of organizations had been assembled to make recommendations.
“Maine Department of Education assembled a group to explore and make recommendations on ways that schools can celebrate the class of 2020, while taking into consideration public health concerns, social distancing recommendations, and government-issued restrictions on social gatherings. The group compiled the best available advice and information, which was then reviewed by health and education experts,” the notice stated.
On May 11, Makin shared an embargoed draft of summer school guidance, including recommendations from school nurses, with other DOE staff, members of the MEA, MPA, MSMA, MADSEC, MCLA, and representatives from local school districts.
“I have attached an embargoed draft of guidance for summer school programs and would be grateful for your feedback prior to our releasing it as a priority notice from DOE. We ask that you not share this, as it is still in draft stage. You can provide your feedback directly to me by return email,” Makin wrote.
“The outline and components reflect questions and concerns we’ve been hearing from a diverse group of stakeholders in the field and the details were drafted by a team of school nurses. This further revised draft includes input from DOE specialists who ensured that the most recent information provided by our partners at Maine CDC is reflected,” Makin continued.
The guidance includes recommendations for staff that should be on-site while summer school is in-session, as well as requirements for staff and students to conduct daily screenings for COVID-19 symptoms prior to showing up on school property. Additionally, the guidelines include requirements for classroom layouts–prioritizing classrooms with outdoor entrances, ventilation, and built-in bathrooms, among other recommendations–and procedures for bus transportation and entering, exiting, and sitting in classrooms.
Other topics covered within the draft guidance include procedures for lunch and snack time, movement within school buildings, nursing considerations, policies in case of illness, other considerations and supplies likely to be needed.
Andrew Dolloff, superintendent of the Yarmouth School Department and former member of the MSSA executive committee, provided suggested edits to the guidance, as did Timothy Doak, superintendent of RSU 39 and member of several MSSA committees, along with Rick Colpitts, superintendent of MSAD 17 and liaison to MSSA for the national School Superintendents Association.
“I do like the protocols and structures of these items,” Doak wrote in an email of the original proposal. “Reduce movement and flow in the building seems to work. What about bathroom cleaning? No parents in the building could be challenging but necessary. Circle marking for 6 foot distance seems to work better than tape.”
Colpitts offered concern about the impact suggested procedures might have on summer services for students.
Jill Adams, executive director of MADSEC, also offered feedback.
Additionally, Leavitt forwarded Makin the names of two teachers whom she said would review the guidance, one in the Augusta school system and the other in RSU 14.
DOE released the summer school guidance on May 18, without any additional email response to suggested changes made by those from whom it had solicited feedback.
On May 19, the DOE again solicited feedback for draft guidance related to screening for prekindergarten and kindergarten students.
The draft guidance for screening prekindergarten and kindergarten students, a process dictated by DOE rules and federal requirements, helps school officials identify incoming students. DOE solicited feedback related to COVID-19 precautions being added to the in-person screening process.
“In response to a number of questions we’re receiving from SAUs related to screening, we’d like to ask for your feedback on this document,” Chuhta wrote to representatives of the DOE, MEA, MPA, MSMA, MADSEC, MCLA, and representatives from several school districts in the state.
The next day, on May 20, Cheryl Mercier, the special education director for RSU 18 and president of MADSEC, offered her feedback. Noting that her district typically screened more than 200 students, she suggested districts train more individuals to complete the entire screening process.
“Typically, a special educator does concepts, occupational therapist/physical therapist does motor and a speech pathologist does the language portion,” Belolan, who also asked whether the DOE’s Child Development Services could share data on children in Child Find with districts, wrote.
Erin Frazier, a director of special services with DOE, said she thought the information could be shared and would add it to the agenda for a program director’s meeting later in the week.
Belolan also provided feedback, suggesting assessment teams could send instructional videos to students scheduled to be screened, which would include staff who would complete the screening process, unmasked, providing a “developmentally appropriate explanation” of what students would experience.
Voelker added suggestions to the document, including for draft procedures done prior to and during in-person screening.
Bailey also provided comment, asking that the recommendation that guardians be provided an explanation of how the screening process would work stipulate that it be done over the phone, rather than via a paper document.
“I am thinking a little more ‘hand holding’ may be needed–and maybe this has been thought of and anticipated; just that it was not overtly mentioned…thought it might be helpful,” Bailey wrote.
Couturier chimed in again, adding that she agreed with this suggestion and that schools might be able to provide a virtual tour of the process to give parents and guardians a preview.
Matthew Haney, principal at Mount Desert Island High School, also provided feedback, calling the pre-screening process “transformative.”
“I understand that it has to be this way–and–boy is it unfortunate that the first contact that these poor 4-5 year olds have with with a teacher or nurse is behind a mask. For some of these kids it will be their first impression of school and also their first out of house experience since March, or earlier. Masks are certainly a medical necessity and I wonder if there are creative ways to mitigate the fear factor they exacerbate,” Haney wrote.
Megan Welter, assistant superintendent of the South Portland School District and Cumberland representative of MCLA, added that her district was putting together virtual tours as part of a social media post that introduced staff members to students coming into the school for screening. Welter also wondered about whether outreach was being done to English learners within school communities.
On May 21, Frazier suggested that the concept of mask-wearing could be incorporated into virtual tours and staff could be shown with and without masks.
Voelker also sent additional comments.
On May 29, 2020, Deveaux forwarded a final draft of the screening guidance adding that she hoped it was the final edit and that some language suggested during a meeting on school reopening, held that week, had been incorporated, as had other comments the department received.
Deveaux added they hoped to discuss the final draft that Sunday (May 31), release the finalized documents to superintendents that evening, and to the general public on Monday (June 1).
Deveaux followed up again on June 3.
“While we did not meet Sunday, I did want to circle back and make certain folks are all set with this guidance being shared today with the field,” Deveaux wrote, adding she wanted any additional feedback by noon that day so the guidance could be sent out that afternoon.
Bailey asked for clarification about a bullet point stating children and guardians should complete a “quick survey” upon arrival as part of in-person screening protocols. “Do you mean a paper survey, a thermometer check, or just an eye-ball survey?” Bailey asked. He also offered minor grammatical suggestions.
“I think the survey is the CDC checklist, maybe I can call it a checklist of symptoms…will play with this,” Deveaux wrote in response.
Adams also chimed in, adding the CDC guidance referred to the survey as a “health check screening.”
Voelker responded, adding she agreed with Bailey’s comments, and was attaching additional comments of her own.
“I am particularly concerned not only about fragile students, but staff that are at high risk. Really anyone who is at high risk may not be able to participate in this activity. Of course, some of these health and safety issues must be negotiated (beyond a CPT potentially) and we would always emphasize that locals and school districts should work collaboratively to address these matters,” Voelker wrote.
DOE posted the finalized guidance to the agency website on June 4, with additional language changes incorporated from suggestions made by Bailey and Voelker.
At the same time the DOE was discussing screening guidance with state educational organizations, it was also soliciting feedback on draft guidance for return to in-person instruction.
Chuhta emailed a draft framework for reopening schools to representatives of the DOE, MEA, MPA, MSMA, MADSEC, MCLA, and officials from several school districts in the state, on May 20, 2020.
“Thus far, the framework has been developed based on feedback and questions we’ve received (from many of you–thanks!), as well as a whole host of other plans and reports (again, many that you have shared!). As we’ve explained, this is really step one of a document that will evolve and mature as health information continues to come in, and practices are discussed and reviewed,” Chuhta wrote in his email, urging the recipients to not share the draft with others and informing them that portions of the document highlighted in yellow were placeholders for work that had not yet been completed.
The day prior, on May 19, he had emailed a similar list of education officials, alerting them that DOE would be developing plans for “safe reintegration into schools” in the coming weeks and would be seeking input. Chuhta also provided a timeline in which the DOE expected to develop and refine guidance.
On May 20, Chuhta provided a confidential and embargoed draft of framework for returning to in-person education. The document was shared with representatives of the MEA, MADSEC, MCLA, MPA, and MSMA.
Though the document was linked in emails included in The Maine Wire’s FOAA request, access to the draft framework was not provided. The DOE did not return a request to provide access to it.
In the email in which Chuhta shared the document, he noted that comments on the draft framework were needed by mid-day on May 22, 2020 so they could be reviewed before another draft was sent to superintendents.
“We will then gather as a team next Wednesday [May 29] to dig deeply into the document,” Chuhta wrote.
This is the last instance of DOE sharing an embargoed copy of draft guidance with outside interest groups for the purpose of soliciting feedback within the timeframe of The Maine Wire’s FOAA request. However, there are other examples of the DOE and interest groups collaborating about COVID-19 messaging and guidance within the emails the department turned over.
At least two documents which should have been released to The Maine Wire as part of this FOAA request were never made available by the department. One document related to the definition of an essential employee was deleted prior to the FOAA request being fulfilled and could not be examined. The other was the draft framework circulated by Chuhta related to returning to in-person education and was not made available for review. Maine DOE did not return multiple requests to obtain access to these documents.
All of the materials The Maine Wire received as a result of this FOAA can be viewed here.