September 28, 2020
2020 School Reopening: How We Stay In School
Dear Erskine Students and Families,
When opening the school year with a hybrid instructional model, we set a date of September 25 to review and reassess this approach. Our hope at the time was that conditions and circumstances would be such that we could move to full in-person instruction in a short while. Regrettably, our shared wish and goal for a full return to in-person instruction will remain frustrated and unfulfilled, at least for now, as we will continue with the hybrid model for the foreseeable future.
Although our formal program review occurred last week, we had designs on going “green,” even before opening day. Early activities included posting signage throughout our buildings and setting up sanitation stations in every classroom, on each bus, and in shared areas. We measured classrooms to accommodate three feet of distance between and among students, six feet among adults. We removed nonessential furniture and materials from classrooms to maximize seating, repurposed available spaces, and purchased tents for outside dining and outdoor classrooms. These actions were taken to determine and grow our facility’s capacity to meet the required health and safety measures for opening and staying in school.
Following our review, the general consensus of the faculty and staff is that we stay on our present course and continue with the hybrid instructional model. Coming to this conclusion was easy given our consideration of facilities, logistics, safety, and operational factors; less so, and somewhat bitter, in that our shared goal and sentiment is for our students and staff’s full return to the complete Erskine community.
To be clear, our students’ conduct and comportment to this crisis and form of schooling are not causes for this action. To the contrary, our students’ behaviors and attitudes, cooperation and understanding have been exemplary and admirable. It is their common and consistent adherence to our risk management strategies and demonstrated care and concern for one another that strengthen our resolve to give our young people, as soon as it is safe to do so, the Erskine Academy experience that made us their chosen high school in the first place.
Of the six requirements necessary for opening school and protecting the safety and well-being of students, staff, and families, it is our facilities that are insufficient in dimension to achieve the physical distancing minimums when all 600 of our members are present. Despite our efforts to address the barriers to full in-person schooling, the following considerations remain:
- Classrooms are not uniformly sized. Our largest classrooms might be able to accommodate 16 students (numerous classes exceed this number by three students on average) spaced three feet apart and seated facing in one direction. However, this arrangement is not conducive to moving comfortably and with ease within the classroom, and it confines the teacher to a relatively small space.
- The cafeteria is limited to 50 persons at a time, spaced a minimum of six feet when students are seated and eating with masks removed. Our current hybrid model necessitates five lunch periods and encumbers two hours a day for dining. It reasons that to achieve full in-person, lunch periods and time involved would have to nearly double, which would require a significant reduction in classroom time.
- Two 20’x40′ tents (currently shipped but yet to be delivered) to expand dining areas will be helpful, but with the onset of colder weather—a precursor to the influenza season—we are forced indoors in greater numbers and density where a virus can spread more easily and quickly.
- With only 25 students opting for fully remote for at least one trimester, our daily in-person attendance is not substantially decreased, leaving us with a relatively large number of bodies to accommodate daily.
- Currently, hallway traffic and distancing are well managed. However, since hallways, doorways, and stairways in multiple buildings differ widely in dimension, there is little confidence that spacing is consistently doable with full in-person attendance.
- By most reports, the hybrid model is working well. Teacher and student proficiency with remote technologies and lessons will continue to be refined and developed, which will be vital to shifting effectively and seamlessly into a fully-remote “red” model if and when it becomes eventual.
- Student health, safety, and well-being have always been and will continue to be the top priority. However, our attention to this crisis focuses us on the risks to adults as well, particularly older adults with vulnerabilities who are relatives of students and staff. We value all of our members–young and old, students and staff–and their extended families. Our want for a return to normal school life must be balanced with our concern for all of our members.
- Virus transmission rates as they currently are, Maine is favorably positioned for its schools to go “green.” However, a lesson can be learned from the many schools across the country that have closed and gone fully remote within two weeks of full in-person or hybrid learning. We are also aware that wherever and whenever people start to be less vigilant with safety standards, the virus reminds us that it’s a bad idea.
Accepting the biggest disruption to schooling in a generation and this decision are not easy for anyone. I feel for, am apologetic to, and humbled by those who are sacrificing the most to stay in school—the young people of Erskine Academy. However, it is our conformance with safety protocols—daily self-screening for COVID-19 symptoms before coming to school, wearing face masks when in our buildings and on our buses, the physical distancing of a minimum three to six feet at all times, and regular and frequent hand hygiene—that best assures we stay in school, even in this modified and less than preferred way.
The coronavirus’s trajectory and potential eventualities are, at best, unclear. We are eager to return to in-school instruction once cleared to do so by the appropriate national, state, and regional agencies. In the meantime, we will continue to study, confer, and base our decisions and actions on the latest data and information available to us. For now, it is difficult to know if any steps beyond the most conservative and cautious would be wise. Therefore, it is our well-informed decision that we stay on our current course and maintain the hybrid model of instruction.
Thank you for your consideration, understanding, and support.
All my best,
Michael J. McQuarrie