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Maine students return for first day of in-person learning during COVID-19


Students entering Erin Bjorkdahl’s health class at Bonny Eagle High School Tuesday morning were greeted with a stack of paper towels, plenty of hand sanitizer and a basket of extra reusable masks at the door.

As they settled into their socially distanced desks, Bjorkdahl reminded them not to eat in class, remember to wash their masks after wearing them for the day and to bring water from home since water fountains are closed.

“Yes, my face is really warm right now but it’s better than COVID,” Bjorkdahl told the class as she prepared to launch a video on the importance of mask wearing.

That scene and others like it were unfolding at schools around Maine Tuesday as many districts welcomed students back in-person for the first time since March. While the first day of classes varies by district, many schools are re-opening with new coronavirus precautions in place this week.

The Maine Department of Education has recommended all counties with the exception of York offer in-person instruction as long as they can implement required health and safety precautions. Decisions are left to individual districts, although the state on Friday did advise that York County should consider hybrid models, something many districts are already doing, due to an elevated risk of the spread of COVID-19.

“It’s pretty organized,” said Buxton-based School Administrative District 6 Superintendent Paul Penna during a walk-through at Bonny Eagle. “We’ve done a lot of ground work. We’ve been doing Zoom meetings with families all summer. We’ve had ongoing all summer meetings about what our plan is, what it’s going to look like, what you need to tell your kids when you come to school. None of it is really that new, it’s just a matter of doing it.”

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Students make their way down the now one-way hallway on the first day of school at Bonny Eagle High School Tuesday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

In South Portland, Elizabeth Polaco had mixed emotions when she dropped off her son Jensi Baez to start fourth grade at Skillin Elementary School. She was both glad he was returning to school and concerned for his health and safety.

“It’s a little bit crazy,” Polaco said. “The most important thing is to be safe.”

Mother and son wore masks as they sat in their car in front of the school. Jensi was a bit nervous, too.

“I’ll be happy to go home,” he said.

Safety of students and staff was top priority as South Portland began welcoming 3,000 students back to school on Tuesday, said Superintendent Ken Kunin.

The district adopted a hybrid attendance model wherein about 10 percent of students are expected to choose full distance learning, Kunin said. The rest have been divided into two groups that will attend classes in person on either Mondays and Thursdays or Tuesdays and Fridays. All students will be learning online on Wednesdays.

Students in grades 1-8 start this week. Pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students start next week. High school students are learning online this week and starting in-person classes next week.

“Things are moving along, going according to plan,” Kunin said mid-morning. “None of us has ever done anything like this before. I usually have butterflies the night before the first day of school. Last night it was a lot more than butterflies.”

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Health Teacher Erin Bjorkdahl watches students wipe down their desks after she sprayed them with a disinfectant at the end of class on the first day of school at Bonny Eagle High School Tuesday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

South Portland is spending an additional $2 million this year on COVID-19 preparedness and response, including staff, equipment, computer devices, building maintenance, ventilation upgrades, masks and other supplies, most of it covered by federal funding. The district hired two additional nurses this year, going from seven to nine, so there’s one in each elementary and middle school and the high school has two.

Masked staff members greeted Skillin students as they arrived by bus or car and ushered them into the school in small groups.

“So far, so good,” said Principal Bethany Connolly. “We had a pretty tight plan in place and lots of people on duty.”

A handful of students showed up on the wrong day and had to be transported back home, Connolly said.

“We expected that might happen,” she said. “Teaching kids new procedures and protocols is all part of learning. It’s been almost six months since they’ve been in school. Right now we’re focused on getting kids safely back in the classroom. One thing I’m not worried about is the learning that will take place once our teachers are reconnected with students.”

This story will be updated.

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