Boothbay Region Elementary School Principal Shawna Kurr and Assistant Principal Matt Lindemann came into the new year preparing to go back to a traditional school week. But Kurr said it became evident, faculty and staff felt BRES was not ready to open Wednesdays back up for in-person students. So the administrators are eying a five-day week for the fourth quarter instead of the third.
“Things are going really well … but I feel like in some aspects we're still really scarred from what happened last year,” said Kurr. “Within a year, with the pandemic, with everything we've been dealing with, we kind of forgot about what last year looked like.”
BRES had roughly 300 absences each month from September to December 2019 and trends have stayed the same last year, said Kurr. In January 2020, absences spiked to nearly 700 and carried into February, a short month with a one-week vacation, with 500 absences. Kurr said there were many days the administration was forced to notify Maine Center for Disease Control due to so many absences.
“I expect we're probably going to increase in sickness as we always do at least in Maine. In Knox and Lincoln County, my experience has been that absences increase. People get really sick and right around February vacation that spikes … And I'm expecting additional concerns and worries here as we really get into the thick of cold and flu season and layer COVID on top of it.”
Kurr and Lindemann polled the staff and found 80%, including 100% of K-2 staff, were not ready to return to a traditional Wednesday. Since the start of the school year, Wednesdays have been reserved for a variety of services including pre-k, special education, allied arts and time for teaching staff to focus on the 32 students in the virtual academy. Lindemann said it is a critical time for teachers and administration. He said teachers are still learning distance teaching. “We're learning new technologies and trying new strategies and still fine-tuning things because this is still such a new process for us all. It's really a great time to dig in with teachers and with students. So, it's not a day off, it's a hardworking day.”
It was an agonizing decision to keep Wednesdays remote because it is a hard day for teachers, students and the community, said Kurr. However, in the best interest of staff and students, the decision came down to the likely attendance fluctuation, instructional constraints and the well-being of remote students. Kurr and Lindemann said it is the only path they see to bringing all students back for in-person learning.
Kurr said one of the reasons is no one really expected to greet 2021 in the hybrid model and everyone was prepared to fall into full remote learning at a moment’s notice. “We keep waiting for the other shoe to drop and it's not. People are healthy, we've had some close contacts here in the school, but … people have (isolated) and come back and it hasn't been spreading in our schools, so we're really pleased … Our teachers are remaining vigilant and giving mask reminders and the distance reminders and we're still really tight on our procedures here. We haven't let go or loosened up, so I think that's also helping us.”
Both said having a resilient student body, dedicated and hardworking staff and dynamic administration has been key to keeping BRES running smoothly in the hybrid model. Said Lindemann, “We have a team here that helps us stay on the right track, they're understanding and very open and honest with how they're feeling and where they're at and that helps us think through and make the best decision to support the students … We have students who have found virtual learning works for them, students who didn't know that because they hadn't experienced it before … We're learning new things, but the kids are learning more about the way they learn as well.”
Said Kurr, “We want our students back five days a week. We know that it's critically important for five days a week to be teaching kids. We understand that. But there's also a little bit of catch-up that we're playing, too, from the pandemic … This gives Matt and I some weeks to work with the staff on what that's going to look like … and we'll have a proposal for fourth quarter which begins April 5 … Science suspects we'll be in a much different place at that point, so we're really looking forward to getting there and ending the year on a high note.”