School Committee Wants Kids Back in School

The five members of the Sanford School Committee have directed Superintendent of Schools Matt Nelson to figure out how to have students in schools more days per week. Except when a school or class goes to full remote learning because of an outbreak, most Sanford students are taught on a hybrid model, with two days a week of in-school instruction, and three days of remote learning at home.

At their February 8 meeting, School Committee members heard comments from some frustrated parents. Evan Levesque said the data shows that it is safe for kids to be in school four days a week. He pointed out that parents who don’t want their kids in school have a choice, but parents who want them in school have no choice.

Danielle, the parent of two Carl J. Lamb School students, said her first grader, who is going to school four days a week under a Title 1 program, has made amazing progress, while her second grader, on the hybrid model, is losing focus.

Not all parents who commented were in favor of more in-person learning. Committee Chair Don Jamison quoted an email from one who said she was more concerned about stopping the spread of Covid.

Superintendent Nelson went over some data showing how many days per week local schools are doing in-person education.

  • Kennebunk, Buxton and Sanford have all or most students learning in person two days a week.
  • Old Orchard Beach has all students attending school in person four days a week.
  • Wells/Ogunquit and Waterboro have all students attending in person five days a week.
  • Other districts, including Biddeford, Kittery and the Berwicks, have younger students in school four or five days a week, with older students attending in person two days a week.

Committee member Amy Sevigny pointed out that Waterboro has had fewer Covid cases than Sanford, despite having a full in-person schedule. She said kids getting together on remote days could be contributing to community spread of the virus, and that school might in fact be a safer place for them. “We definitely need to start transitioning” back to in-person education, she added.

School Committee member Paula Cote spoke about her own children’s experiences with attending school on a mostly remote basis. She said although they were keeping their grades up, emotionally they were struggling, with isolation and depression becoming issues. “The sooner we try to open up the schools, the better,” she said. “even if we have to do it in stages, starting with the elementary, then moving on to the middle and high schools.” She also pointed out the stress on families who need to have parents working full time to make ends meet.

Superintendent Nelson said while he supports the goal of returning to in-person learning, there are a few challenges. One is the Governor’s Executive Order limiting gatherings to 50 people, which would affect the cafeteria. Another is a chronic staffing shortage. Teachers have to quarantine when they have been exposed to a positive case of the virus, but the school department has difficulty finding enough substitutes to cover for them. A shortage of food service workers is also a problem.

Committee member John Roux said he didn’t believe there was a perfect solution, but that Mr. Levesque’s statement about the lack of choice for parents was “an eye-opening moment for me…we need to start to move forward.”

Committee member Jonathan Mapes agreed. “I think you’re hearing loud and clear that the schools need to reopen, somehow, someway.” He added that for some kids, school is a safe haven from a stressful or abusive home environment.

Mr. Jamison also referred to the social and emotional impact on kids, and the lack of choice for parents. “That’s where we need to start…figuring out if we can get classes opened up for the parents who want them back four or five days a week.”

Committee members agreed that, even if Sanford schools go back to full in-person learning, a remote option should still be offered for those parents who want it.

A short survey will be sent to parents to determine their interest in more in-person education, so that the school department can begin to plan for the transition.