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Lessons From School Reopenings In Rural Maine

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Maine has one of the country's lowest daily case rates of COVID-19, and a few schools in rural districts have already opened their doors to in-person learning. But as Maine Public Radio's Robbie Feinberg found, the school day is still far from normal.

ROBBIE FEINBERG, BYLINE: Fort Street Elementary School sixth grader Charlie Pierce was OK with the masks and temperature checks, but she and her mom, Ami, say One of the hardest parts of going back to school was not being able to hug the friends she hadn't seen in months.

CHARLIE PIERCE: My friends kind of really wanted to hug me. I mean...

AMI PIERCE: We have talked about...

CHARLIE: Not hugging.

PIERCE: ...Keeping our distance because we are huggers by nature...

CHARLIE: (Laughter).

PIERCE: ...So...

FEINBERG: The new social distancing rules are just some of the changes at Fort Street Elementary, which opened to students in mid-August. It was one of the first schools in Maine to reopen its classrooms.

ELAINE BOULIER: Listen; the parents in the community have been waiting for us to go back to school for a long time (laughter).

FEINBERG: Elaine Boulier is superintendent of the MSAD #42 school district. She says the decision to reopen has been easier here in Aroostook County along the Canadian border. The farming community is relatively isolated, and the county has had less than 40 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since March. Also, the school district serves only about 400 students. But even in an area with no community spread, back to school looks a little different, beginning before students even arrive in the classroom.

PIERCE: Everybody has their mask? All right.

FEINBERG: As sixth-grader Charlie Pierce gets ready to head out in the morning, her mom, Ami, asks her and her three sisters a set of required daily questions.

PIERCE: Is everybody feeling OK?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

PIERCE: Nobody has scratchy throats or coughs or - you tasted your breakfast, right?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yes.

PIERCE: (Laughter).

FEINBERG: After students are dropped off at the school's entrance, they put on masks or face shields, as mandated by the state. Then they stand in a line six feet apart and walk toward a teacher for a temperature check.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Good morning. How are we? Good job.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: OK, you can go right to your class.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Go right to your room.

FEINBERG: Half the district's students go to school in the morning, half in the afternoon, with a few families opting to continue with remote learning for now. Boulier says class sizes can be mostly kept to just five to 10 kids, making social distancing easier. That's helped relieve concerns of some staff, like high school social studies teacher Samantha Drost. She has asthma, which puts her in a higher risk category for the virus.

SAMANTHA DROST: You know, if I was at a bigger school like Georgia, I probably wouldn't have come back.

FEINBERG: Georgia has one of the highest daily case rates in the country and has already seen outbreaks in schools. The initial plan was for Drost to broadcast her lessons from one room while her students watched her on a screen in another. But on her first day back, Drost realized it would be hard to connect with her kids that way. She decided to abandon the setup and teach them face to face with social distancing.

DROST: I had said to them, you know - and I told them right up. I'm, like, I am a high risk, so you just need to follow what I put out. You need to wear your mask, and we're going to make sure that we clean lots. And if we can do that, then we're going to stay in here.

FEINBERG: So far, at least, she says students are keeping their masks on. But a lot of uncertainty still lingers, like what to do when flu season hits and what to do in the winter, when temperatures go down to the single digits, making it a lot harder to keep windows open to circulate air. In southern Maine, which has larger schools and more cases, those kinds of questions have prompted many parents and teachers to call on districts to slow their reopening plans. But in the less populated north, Boulier says the worst of the pandemic still feels far away.

BOULIER: This is one time that it's great to live in rural Maine.

FEINBERG: For NPR News, I'm Robbie Feinberg in Aroostook County, Maine.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLESTHEFIRST'S "THE DESCENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.