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Superintendent's Update - February 24, 2021

posted Feb 24, 2021, 6:06 AM by Fran Prentice   [ updated Feb 24, 2021, 6:06 AM ]

February 24, 2021

Dear MSAD #51 School Community,

Hopefully the February break was relaxing and returning to school this week has been smooth.  Here are some brief updates on current topics as we move into the late winter stretch of the school year.  Also, if you missed my Mid-Winter Update a couple weeks back, check it out as several important topics were addressed there as well.

Grade Retention

We realize that the pandemic has been a huge stressor on students, staff, and parents in many ways, and that worries about students’ academic progress is one of these stressors.  Several parent/guardian inquiries have already come forward about possibly retaining their children due to the effects of the pandemic. Please know that while we understand these concerns, we continue to believe that retention is not the answer.  Research studies have shown that retention has a long-term detrimental effect on a student’s well-being. Therefore, the Board strongly discourages the retention of students at any grade level in accordance with Policy IKE Promotion, Retention and Acceleration of Students. 

Per Policy IKE, every effort shall be made to provide the support services needed by students during regular school hours throughout the school year, in accordance with the district’s Response to Intervention (RTI) programming. We are confident that a return to a more typical school year, and thus a more typical curriculum pace, will be the answer for the vast majority of students.  Summer school for regular education students will be best accomplished during the summer of 2022 (not 2021) after a year of a more typical curriculum yields more data on academic progress. Summer school in 2021 will be limited to students who qualify for extended services under IDEA (special education) and students who require credit recovery at the high school level.  

Going GREEN this school year (Part II)

After my last update letter before the vacation, I have continued to receive many questions about why the district is not considering GREEN (100% in-person schedule) for the current school year at this time.  

The Maine Department of Education, https://www.maine.gov/doe/home, is where we get our guidance about what we are able to do.  The Department has six major requirements that must be met in order to reopen safely.  We have been able to reopen in a hybrid model this year by meeting these six guidelines, but we cannot reopen 100% and still meet these guidelines:

Physical Distancing and Facilities - Adults must maintain 6 feet of distance from others to the extent possible. Maintaining 3 feet of distance is acceptable between and among students when combined with the other measures outlined in this list of safety requirements.  6 feet of physical distancing is required for students while eating breakfast and lunch, as students will be unable to wear masks at that time.  

Some parents have referenced a recent New York Times headline CDC urges schools to get back in session which provides updated guidance for doing so. However, there is newly revised federal CDC guidance. One of the first items: physical distancing of at least 6' between any individuals in either an indoor or outdoor setting.  This is actually more restrictive than the 3-6' Maine CDC distancing requirement that we have been practicing to date.  If this is the "updated" guidance, the headline is clearly aimed at the 35-40% of schools that aren't open at all for in-person instruction right now across the US.  

For reference, here are the reasons I outlined earlier this month explaining why it is not feasible for the schools to be in GREEN this school year:

  • The state social distancing rules as outlined by the Maine Department of Education and Maine CDC will likely stay in place until the end of the school year, regardless of the vaccine’s status.  These guidelines currently prevent districts from allowing students to be less than 3-6 feet in proximity in classrooms, common areas, and buses.  MSAD #51 takes these rules seriously in order to ensure safety, and we have not deviated from the script this year.  Until there is a change in the state rules, we will continue to follow the expectations with fidelity.
  • The vaccine that is currently being dispensed is not expected to reach “herd immunity” until later this spring or summer.  
  • There are many unknowns with the vaccine right now and a period of time must pass in order for the full effect of the vaccine to be better known, including the new variant virus that is in Maine. 
  • We do not have a full staff roster available this year due to COVID-19 child care and medical leaves.
  • We are already using all available space in our schools for social distancing, including all common spaces such as gyms, halls, the Arts Center auditorium and lobby, conference rooms, small group rooms, etc.  We have no other space available on or off campus.

Going GREEN in 2021-22?

Of course, none of us knows for sure what the status of the pandemic will be in September, but MSAD #51 has begun planning for a full return of all students to 5 days/week in September (GREEN), with adjustments as needed (see Post-Pandemic Plan below).  The DRAFT district calendar which will be presented to the Board of Directors on March 1 will look more like a pre-pandemic calendar.  As a fail-safe, the district will have a contingency plan and alternate calendar as a backup, but our planning is based on a full return of all students daily to school in the Fall.

Post-Pandemic Plan

Given what will be the effects of 18 months of the pandemic by September 2021, returning to school more typically will require additional district and school planning. Here are areas the district will be addressing prior to the start of school in the Fall:

  • Health and Safety protocols/routines for transitioning to GREEN
  • Contingency Planning
  • Curriculum adjustments for ALL students
  • Instructional focus 
  • Mental health considerations
  • Remote learning possibility for some students, if required
  • Supporting struggling students who have needs beyond the regular curriculum adjustments

New Chorus/Singing Guidelines

The CDC and Dept. of Education have released new guidelines for chorus, which allows us to move ahead with allowing singing in our music classrooms and classrooms.  Prior to this change, singing was only allowed outdoors, which obviously posed a hardship for our music programs since winter set in.  The district health team is working to safely implement the new chorus/singing measures so that we can move forward with offering this again in our classrooms. 

Clarification about COVID Notifications

I’ve had a few people ask why many of the more recent COVID-19 cases have not been requiring contact tracing. Here are some reasons why:

  • We continue to do contact tracing when an individual who tests positive has been in school during the period set by the CDC, which is two days prior to testing positive or the onset of symptoms. 
  • With the hybrid model, often students have not been in school during that period as they are out of the building for 5 days weekly.  
  • Most recently, some of our cases have not been traced because the impacted individual has been in quarantine after being identified as close contacts of another case.  
  • Finally, in December the quarantine period was reduced by the CDC from 14 days to 10 days, which also reduced the contact tracing we must complete, depending on when the school is notified of a case.

Clarification about COVID Testing for Staff

BinaxNOW tests are now available to schools to enable testing of teachers who are close contacts of those who have contracted COVID-19.  This testing allows them to forgo the need for quarantine as long as they test negative.  As a district we have chosen not to have our employees who have been designated as close contacts to a COVID-19 case forgo quarantine and come to school under the "essential worker" clause.  We decided that the risk of having an employee come into contact with many other staff and students during their potentially infectious period was a risk we were not willing to take.  

We are concerned that offering testing of symptomatic individuals in the school setting could inadvertently send a mixed message to staff and students to come to school when they are not feeling well.  In turn, this may very well increase the school community's exposure to symptomatic individuals, thereby increasing their risk of contracting COVID-19.  After careful consideration, MSAD #51 has decided not to participate in the administration of BinaxNOW testing in our schools at this time.

Feedback Survey Coming Soon

As we have done so annually, we will be sending out a survey to all parents/guardians in the next few weeks asking for feedback about the schools and district.  This year, we are including questions about our pandemic response as part of this survey.  We have typically received well over 1,000 responses to surveys and we are hoping for a similar response so we can get a better understanding of what parents are thinking. Thank you in advance for your help in filling this survey out. 

My best as we move through the remaining weeks of winter.  Spring is on the way!


Jeff Porter
Superintendent of Schools