Not much can put a small hitch in the giddy-up for a school board in the full throes of budget season, but it turns out a global pandemic can. While COVID-19 (coronavirus) didn't impose itself on school budget talks March 11, it did crop up in reports from teachers and Superintendent Keith Laser.
The CSD School Committee voted to deny an April trip to Costa Rica due to the virus and the likelihood host company Explorica will cancel trips anyway. Explorica recently canceled over 600 trips (and counting) to Italy and will surely be canceling trips to other parts of the world, said Spanish teacher Karol Clark.
Having not yet booked flights to San Juan, Clark said the trip deserved a conversation considering layovers will likely include Charlotte, North Carolina or Miami, Florida and the 10-day trip will bring students from the mangroves of Tortuguero on the east coast to the beaches of Guanacaste on the west coast.
Explorica has given Clark three options: Change travel dates; change tour location and keep the date of travel; or cancel the tour outright and claim a voucher to use by a later date. Clark said only one out of nine students is a senior, so changing the dates to next year would accommodate all but one student.
However, Clark said the senior student would be able to claim a voucher even if the rest of the class opts for an April 2021 itinerary; the student would be able to use that for a future trip in college, on her own or with her former peers. However, Clark said Explorica wants to know the class's plans “ASAP.”
After approving school trips to Washington, D.C. and Boston if travel is deemed safe, committee members vocalized their bitterness in having to cancel the Costa Rica trip, but canceled it unanimously.
The Maine State Science Fair will also be shifting its annual event to a virtual one, stated Gifted and Talented teacher Emily Higgins and English teacher Mark Gorey. The March 28 event was supposed to be held at the University of Maine in Orono which is having its students stay home at the end of spring break. This is also the first year Gorey’s AP literature students would be presenting their Champions of Change projects under the social sciences category.
“(Judges) have a plan to … go through abstracts and choose the top eight in every category and those students will receive a Zoom link and will be presenting to their judges,” said Higgins.
Two scientists from Bigelow Laboratory will review students' projects and Higgins will be finding more people for students to present to. Committee members also invited students to present their projects at a future meeting.
Laser said such student successes, especially those managing to win amid the coronavirus precautions, are important for the board to hear.
“During budget season we tend to get into the weeds on just dollars and cents. Meanwhile, there's some great stuff going on. Our teachers are doing a fabulous job. The kids are doing a fabulous job. That's the reason we're here.”
Gorey, a union representative for teachers, expressed concern at what would happen to hourly employees of the CSD if the schools were to close. “… What tipping point would actually lead you to close the schools?”
Laser said the “tipping point” for serious consideration to close the schools would be at some point after needing to reach out to the Centers for Disease Control -- that threshold is 15% of students staying home sick. This was something the CSD was forced to do earlier this year with Influenza B. “So – we get to that point then I'm going to have to start asking questions.”
For teachers and staff, Laser said he received guidance from Maine Department of Education and attorneys from Drummond and Woodsum which said if employees are not working, they do not have to be paid. However, Laser also said Boothbay Region Elementary School Principal Shawna Kurr has been working on a plan for some on-the-clock training.
Said Kurr, “It's a great professional development opportunity. There's tons of things we can do that make the time a gift, really.”
This article has been updated from its original posting.