The Jefferson School Committee voted unanimously Monday, Aug. 3 to have students return to school on a full-time, in-person basis at the start of the upcoming school year.
The school committee made the decision with the caveat that it will track potential changes in guidance and mandates from the federal and state governments related to the safe reopening of schools.
The committee’s decision followed a comment from Heather Northrup, a second grade teacher at Jefferson Village School and president of the Jefferson Teachers Association, urging the committee to decide how to proceed after a long meeting without substantive action up to that point.
“Teachers and parents are looking forward to a decision on students coming back. People are still wondering and I encourage the committee to decide sooner rather than later,” Northrup said.
AOS 93 Superintendent Craig Jurgensen echoed Northrup’s statement and said it would be helpful to have a decision from the committee.
“People want to know where it stands. We can always change the decision if there is an increase in COVID-19 cases,” Jurgensen said.
Committee member Walter Greene-Morse spoke in support of students returning to school as soon as possible.
“I think there is absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t be in school five days per week,” Greene-Morse said.
According to Jurgensen, the first student day is scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 26, but the district hopes to push the first day back to Monday, Aug. 31 in order to provide more time for training on health and safety protocols.
“The helpful thing from last night’s meeting is that Jefferson is planning to open up on a full-time basis. We will make accommodations to ensure kids are safe. We want to do everything we can to mitigate risk to students and we will look at what is required and what is recommended. We need to keep our staff and students safe,” Jurgensen said.
In addition to voting to reopen the school on a full-time basis, the school committee had a lengthy discussion on the school’s draft reopening plan.
The draft plan, dated July 28, was created by the school’s collaborative planning team, which met multiple times in July to review recommendations and create plans specific to JVS.
Jurgensen said that in addition to the collaborative team’s efforts, the district has been developing reopening plans for its schools since they first closed due to the pandemic in March.
The planning team in Jefferson had nine members: former Principal Lynsey Johnston; John Carroll, the school’s facilities director; Rachel Heath, school nurse; Rachael Richmond, K-8 team leader; Jen St. Cyr, K-4 team leader; Julie Madden, team leader for grades five through eight; Northrup; Kathy Peabody, president of the Jefferson Support Staff Association; and Ari Edgar, the school’s licensed clinical social worker.
Johnston said a survey will be sent to parents and their feedback will be incorporated into the reopening plan.
The question of mask-wearing took center stage during discussion of the plan.
Greene-Morse said the decision of whether to require students to wear masks rests with the school committee.
Greene-Morse said the low number of cases in Lincoln County means JVS students have a lower risk of contracting the virus than those in more densely populated counties and states.
“COVID-19 is a big deal. It’s a real virus we will have to deal with for a long time. We are fortunate here that we have a low population density and we have had a very low number of cases,” Greene-Morse said.
Greene-Morse said the school has received only recommendations and no mandates related to students wearing face coverings. He said the requirements in the state’s framework for returning to classroom instruction do not amount to a mandate.
Greene-Morse said he agrees with 99% of the state’s recommendations but takes issue with others, including making students have lunch in their classrooms. He said the school cafeteria can be used in a way to ensure physical distancing and student safety.
After the meeting, Greene-Morse said that if the governor issues an executive order requiring students to wear face masks, the school committee would have no issue following such a mandate.
“We will follow all mandates from … the state and federal government,” Greene-Morse said.
According to the Maine Department of Education’s framework for returning to classroom instruction, “adults, including educators and staff, are required to wear a mask/face covering. Students age five and above are required to wear a mask/face covering that covers their nose and mouth. Masks are recommended for children ages two to four, when developmentally appropriate. Mask/face coverings must be worn by all students on the bus.”
The state’s framework was updated Friday, July 31.
The Maine Department of Education has directed school districts to have three plans for the fall, covering in-person instruction, a hybrid model, and remote instruction.
Additionally, the department has a color-coded, three-tiered risk categorization system.
Currently, all 16 counties in Maine are at the green level, meaning there is a low risk of COVID-19 spread and in-person instruction can proceed.
In its guidance for K-12 school administrators on the use of cloth face coverings in school, updated July 23, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends “that people, including teachers, staff and students, wear cloth face coverings in public settings as able when around people who live outside of their household, especially when other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.”