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Auburn schools returning to normal

By Nathan Tsukroff

AUBURN – Auburn Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Cornelia Brown expects schools in the district to return to normal classes next school year, after more than 15 months under pandemic restrictions.

As COVID-19 vaccinations have been completed for many adults and older children across Maine, the Maine Center for Disease Control has eased restrictions for indoor and outdoor gatherings.

The Maine Department of Education has applied the CDC restrictions in a set of guidelines to be followed by schools. Under those guidelines, the Auburn schools were able to allow more students back into classrooms starting in April.

When the pandemic was first declared last year, schools across Maine closed temporarily while administrators looked at ways to meet social-distancing guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus.

The Auburn schools settled on a plan with two cohorts (groups) of students to attend school two days and week and remote from home the remainder of the week. One group attended in person on Mondays and Tuesdays, while the second group attended in person on Thursdays and Fridays. Schools were empty on Wednesdays and over the weekends to allow custodial staff to deep-clean the buildings.

Parents were allowed to opt out of that hybrid system to keep their children completely remote.

Special needs students and students in the alternative education programs attended school in person four days a week, since the smaller numbers of students in those programs allowed the schools to meet CDC and DOE guidelines for social-distancing.

Students and staff were required to wear masks at school.

With the easing of restrictions in April, and by utilizing space in the school buildings in creative ways, many of the regular students were able to return to school in person all four days, as well, Brown said. About 90 percent of the district students were in school in person by the end of the school year. The guidelines were changed to allow students with masks to be closer together, allowing for more students in a classroom area.

“The school committee in Auburn was adamant that we would bring kids back safely into as much in-person instruction as possible,” Brown said. “In early spring, the school committee wanted a plan that would bring back all the Edward Little (high school) kids, all the middle schools kids, and as many elementary kids as we could do with the space guidelines we had at that time.”

 A steering committee, chaired by Assistant Superintendent Michelle McClellan, met all year to and “looked at things like health and safety requirements, student’s social/emotional learning, what equipment we needed. We have a lot of PPE – personal protective equipment,” Brown said.

 “I have to say, the kids and staff were great, all year!” she said. “We had reservations about whether kids would mask – they did it across the board, little kids all the way up to the high school kids. No issues! They wore their masks.”

Even during sports events, players wore their masks, Brown said.

Under the pandemic restrictions, the staff at the schools “was amazing,” she said. “They made these accommodations – they had to rearrange lunches, they had to rearrange spacing, they had to rearrange class rooms, but they made it work!”

Auburn schools played some winter sports, including basketball and skiing, but “We did not allow spectators,” Brown said. “That was hard for kids.” Games were live-streamed for parents to watch remotely.

In the spring, as restrictions were eased for outdoor events, spectators were allowed at track events and baseball and softball games.

The DOE has removed all requirements for the next school year, Brown said, although schools will have the option of requiring masks as they see fit.

The Auburn school committee has made tentative plans for the upcoming year, but won’t announce a final decision until later in the summer, as pandemic conditions continue to evolve, Brown said. It is not clear at this time whether masks will be required for Auburn students in the fall.

The expectation is that students will be in school five days a week in the fall, she said.

With children under 12 not yet being vaccinated, the school district will continue to monitor students for illness. However, COVID-19 is just one of several illnesses that children can catch, so staff members will be looking for students with symptoms of any kind. As children inevitably fall ill, they will be tested to determine the cause of that illness, and schools will make decisions on how to address the needs of those sick students and their classmates.

New High School

The school district recently broke ground for a new building to replace the current building at Edward Little High School.

The $105-million project will take about two years to complete, and is expected to open for students in the fall of 2023..

Workers prepare an area behind the Edward Little High School for a new building to replace the current school. When completed in 2023, the existing building will be demolished to make room for athletic fields. (Tsukroff photo)

The new building is being placed on space behind the high school, and the current building will eventually be demolished to be replaced by athletic fields. Those fields will be created starting in 2023 and finished in 2024.

The high school was built on a 56.25-acre site at 77 Harris St. in 1961. The school committee considered 47 locations in the city before settling on the same site in 2018.

AC Dudley Contractors of Standish won the contract for the construction, with only one other bid submitted.

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