Damariscotta’s Great Salt Bay Community School, Bristol Consolidated School, and South Bristol School are all moving forward with back-to-school plans that are similar to last year’s, but less stringent—with daily health screenings, masking indoors, and recommended physical distancing.
The Great Salt Bay Consolidated School Committee discussed recommendations from Principal Kim Schaff and generally agreed with them on Wednesday, Aug. 11.
Committee member Samuel Belknap said that the committee didn’t have to vote on the recommendations because it is an operational, not a policy, aspect of the school.
Board Chair Jesse Butler agreed, saying that the committee voted on school reopening plans last year, but didn’t necessarily have to.
“We need to be in the loop and we need to have the opportunity to say that we want a change or something, but I don’t think we have to approve this,” Butler said.
AOS 93 Superintendent Craig Jurgensen said other boards in the district have not been formally approving the plans because it “has been such a positive experience, everyone is so supportive.”
AOS 93 includes seven towns – Bremen, Bristol, Damariscotta, Jefferson, Newcastle, Nobleboro, and South Bristol – with five elementary schools. Great Salt Bay serves Bremen, Damariscotta, and Newcastle.
The Bristol Consolidated School Committee and the South Bristol School Committee both discussed similar back-to-school recommendations on Tuesday, Aug. 3 and Wednesday, Aug. 4, respectively.
Jurgensen noted at the SBS meeting that currently the only federal requirement is that face coverings are required when transporting students on buses.
He said that AOS 93 and school administrations all want to keep kids in school and that requiring masks is the best way to do that.
“My recommendation is to require masks for all staff and students inside, no masks outside, masks on the bus,” Jurgensen said.
He said that if the COVID-19 situation improves, plans can always be scaled back in the schools.
“If the pandemic changes, we can pull back,” Jurgensen said.
He also said that physical distancing of six feet will be encouraged wherever possible, but not required.
“I have said to staff, and the principals understand, that we’re going to try to maintain distancing, but not to the point where we are measuring like we were before,” Jurgensen said.
Sharon Marchi, member of the GSB school committee, referenced an opinion essay published in The New York Times on Aug. 10 that cited a study involving 1 million students that shows that universal masking is the best option for preventing COVID-19 infection in children under 12, who are not yet eligible for the vaccine.
“Although vaccination is the best way to prevent (COVID-19), universal masking is a close second, and with masking in place, in-school learning is safe and more effective than remote instruction, regardless of community rates of infection,” the essay’s authors, Drs. Kanecia Zimmerman and Danny Benjamin Jr., wrote.
Schaff said that GSB will not be providing a distance learning option for students this year and that there will be a standard start time to school, rather than last year’s staggered start.
All three schools will continue to require students and parents to submit daily health checks and maintain proper hand hygiene.
Pods, or cohorts, will still be utilized, but will not be as strict as last school year because kids will likely be interacting during the fall sports season, Jurgensen said.
Great Salt Bay will be implementing voluntary “pool testing,” which involves testing a group of students or staff samples together to identify COVID-19 infection. If the result is positive, then people in the pool can be tested individually to determine if, and which, individual is infected with COVID-19.
Schaff said that if a classroom is participating in pool testing and a student tests positive, those participating in the testing do not have to quarantine.
“Our hope is that if we have families participating in the pool testing, it would reduce the disruption to learning if there are positive cases,” Schaff said.
Jurgensen said that pool testing will take some time to implement and to receive permissions from parents, so it will likely not be ready right at the start of the school year.
Jurgensen said that because there are so few students at South Bristol School, pool testing would not have much benefit there.
The first day of school for AOS 93 schools is Wednesday, Sept. 1.