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Gorham had lots of decisions to make for the 2020-21 school year

Teachers point a student toward his classroom on the first week of school at Gorham Middle School. (Photo courtesy of Superintendent Heather Perry)

By Nathan Tsukroff

GORHAM – Crafting the 2020-21 school year for the Gorham School District began last spring, as schools were shut down under the initial rules brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

There were lots of decision to be made. Would schools only offer remote learning in the fall, or fully in-person classes, or a combination of the two? How many students would attend in-person, and how would they be kept safe under the social-distancing guidelines?

Superintendent Heather Perry, starting her sixth year in her position, said committees started planning in earnest in mid-May, “once we got settled” after the emergency shut down in March.” We began really thinking about, how do we open school again, because we know we’re going to shut down school for the summer.”

Several committees worked on plans for this new school year, including the District Leadership Team, which is made up of all the principals, assistant principals and program directors in the district, a medical advisory group, made up of the school physician, district nurses, and four local physicians. The school committee was also involved, and was given documents and other information for members to provide feedback on the decision-making process.

“It was a very fluid and flexible process, with those major committees playing leadership roles,” Perry said.

“We also did some significant surveys with our parents at the end of the school year in June, to try to get feedback from parents around what their thoughts were on what was working well or wasn’t for remote learning.” Parents were also asked for their thoughts and concerns about safety issues with in-person learning. The district had “great participation” with three full-scale surveys among parents, staff and community members, she said.

“It was an iterative process,” where the district presented ideas and thoughts to staff and parents for their feedback, Perry said. “And that went on for several months.”

The Maine Department of Education created three scenarios for schools to re-open in the fall – “Red” for only remote learning, “Green” for all in-person classes, and “Yellow” for a hybrid mix of the two.

 “Our focus all along was preparing for the Yellow opening, because we knew that was the hardest one to plan for, and the hardest one to make happen,” Perry said.

The color designations for schools differ from the color designations the State of Maine created for counties. The state color designations provide citizens with an understanding of the level of COVID-19 spread and infections in a county. For example, York county is currently designated as a yellow county due to a recent upsurge in infections, while Cumberland county remains green. Gorham sits in western Cumberland county, on the border with York county.

Perry said she shared plans and documents with other superintendents in the Cumberland County Superintendents Association, which met three times a week after schools were shut down in the spring. By June, meetings were just weekly, as the districts continued to share ideas, thoughts and questions as schools looked to re-open. A representative from the MDOE usually joined the meetings, and “often times, it was the commissioner of education herself (Pender Makin) who joined our meetings.”

While the different needs for each school district, such as in facilities and transportation, meant each district had to craft a unique plan, the superintendents worked together to ensure continuity among the schools. This was especially important for the Career and Technical Education program, where students attend classes in Westbrook, Perry said. Gorham chose Friday as a day for only remote learning, to coordinate with Westbrook.

The Gorham School District has about 2780 students, and just over 10%, or about 290 chose full remote learning.

Because of the size of the classrooms and the need to keep students properly distanced for their safety under pandemic guidelines, Gorham schools were not able to allow all students on campus at one time. Students were placed into two cohorts, or groups, with the A group students in school each week on Monday and Wednesday and the B group attending weekly on Tuesday and Thursday. Both groups do remote learning on Fridays.

At Great Falls Elementary School, with a student population of about 580, around 280-290 students are in school at one time under this plan. This means students have enough room to remain six feet apart when they remove their face masks at lunchtimes, Perry said. For “580 kids, we can’t do it. There’s not enough real estate!”

For the Gorham schools, students are using the cafeteria and other areas in the school for meals, Perry said. This was important because “we wanted kids to still be able to get in a social situation, where they could interact with their peers outside of their (classroom) group, safely.” Meal areas are sanitized between each serving, and “there are a lot safety protocols that are being put into place.”

Having students leave the classrooms for lunch also gives teachers time to themselves. Personal breaks are “an important aspect of being a good, high-quality functioning teacher,” Perry said. The district will continue to look at how students are served lunch, and make changes as needed.

The decision to alternate attendance days means that students are not away from the school building for more than five days, Perry said. This creates “a rhythm of learning that made sense for us.”

Another reason for keeping students and staff out of school buildings on Fridays is to provide about 72 hours to allow for the expiration of any virus that remains on surfaces after the daily sanitations. This means the schools have a fresh start each week, Perry said.

The medical needs and concerns of teachers and other staff members were reviewed and accommodated over the summer, with minimal changes in staffing for the district for this school year, she said. “At this point in time, we really are very, very lucky. I think we’ve only got a very small handful of staff who are on medical leave of one variety or another because of COVID. And the rest we’ve been able to figure out a way to accommodate” them so they can continue their work for the district.

Staff members have been assigned various roles to help with the remote learning, some working with students completely remotely, and others alternating between classroom teaching and remote teaching.

As with other schools in Cumberland county, football and indoor volleyball have changed for this fall. Gorham will have “more of an intra-mural approach” with students practicing and building skills only at their own school. An outdoor volleyball court is being created for student practice, and the football program is looking at possible flag-football games.

Other fall athletic events will take place between schools, under the Maine Principal Association guidelines.

The Gorham School District includes Gorham High School, Gorham Middle School, Great Falls Elementary, Narragansett Elementary and Village Elementary.

Before coming to Gorham, Perry was the superintendent for nine years at Maine Regional School Unit 3, centered in Unity. She is originally from the Machias area, where she was a teacher and school principal.

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