Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, September 10, 2020
Uncertainty, unfamiliarity and steel drums mark school start
Mallory Heanssler and Clare Malcolm are in the same fourth grade class, and Rowan Malcolm is entering first. All are properly attired and distanced for in-class learning.
by Leslie Landrigan
Whether contact sports will happen at school this fall remained up in the air as most Island students returned to class on September 8 for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic came to Maine.
Added to the uncertainty over sports were the unfamiliar procedures the students encountered inside and outside the decluttered, sanitized school buildings. The bus schedule changed, some parents dropped off their kids in the wrong spot and the smallest children didn’t quite get what the dots on the pavement were for.
But the students, all wearing face masks, showed they could adapt to classroom learning in a time of pandemic.
“Virtual hug!” shouted Clare Malcolm when she first spotted her friend Mallory Heanssler on the pavement outside the elementary school. The two fourth graders stayed socially distant, as did Clare’s brother, first grader Rowan.
Contact sports or not?
The School Union 76 Board in August decided to ban fall contact sports such as soccer, but then on August 28 the Maine Principals Association (MPA) endorsed all sports, including football and wrestling. Maine’s top education and public health officials then rebuked the MPA, which schedules interscholastic sports competitions.
The MPA backed off temporarily, announcing a one-week delay of the fall sports schedule while it reconsidered. The Community School District Board on September 1 decided to stick with its earlier decision until the issue is resolved.
However, the CSD is under some pressure to go ahead with sports. “LET US PLAY” read two-foot-high letters spelled out in the chain link fence bordering the ball field. “WE WANT 2 PLAY!” read the others. High school principal Dennis Duquette said in an interview that a group of parents asked for permission to put up the message.
Herding small children
The Deer Isle-Stonington Elementary School faced the logistical challenge of keeping children apart from each other and confined to their classroom pods. That meant using as many entrances as possible and requiring parents to drop their children off one car at a time—no hugs outside the car.
The school also had to keep track of all those kids partially disguised by face masks with kittens, sharks and dinosaurs on them.
So parents dropping children off at the elementary school had to stop at a makeshift stop sign in the parking lot, where they received an orange card with their child’s name and number on it. That went on the dashboard. Then parents dropped off their children at the goodbye point. A waiting school official then entered the child’s name and number into a computer.
Principal Tara McKechnie explained that’s how the teachers inside the building knew their students had arrived—they could see it on their own computer.
About 18 percent of elementary school students are staying home, and of those who came to school, fewer than half took the bus, according to McKechnie.
After check-in, Coach Dana McGraw greeted the children dropped off by their parents and pointed them toward the school’s separate entrances. Yellow balloons marked the third- and fourth-grade entrances, red balloons marked second grade. He told them to follow the dots on the pavement, which indicated six-foot distancing. His instruction didn’t always register with the youngest children.
Kelly Slaven, special education case manager for kindergarten through second grade, guided a child to the red balloons. “It’s so great to be back with the kids,” she said.
Six feet apart
Only eighth and ninth graders came to the Deer Isle-Stonington High School on September 8; the upper three classes would come the next day. SU 76 Superintendent Chris Elkington explained earlier that the high school students needed more time and attention than lower grades for orientation because they move around the building so much.
Eighth graders arrived first at the high school, where they were ushered onto the gym’s refinished floor and seated six feet apart. Duquette then gave them a dose of positive mental attitude. “We’re on track to become the best high school in the state,” he said. And then he told the eighth graders they could change the world. They would do it, he said, “with respect, with kindness and with trust.”
Ninth graders came to the gym later and got the same message. All high school students received string athletic bags that held a Mariners sweat shirt, a water bottle, five face masks, granola bars, Life Savers and hand sanitizer, paid for by local nonprofits and CARES Act funds.
“It’s to let them feel part of the bigger team,” said Cynthia Pease, art teacher. “It’s a year like nothing before, but it’s an opportunity. We can change things.”
After the morning assemblies and classroom orientation, the eighth and ninth graders went outside and listened to a steel drum band, which called itself “Pandemic Steel.”
“We wanted to do something special for the kids,” Duquette said.
They were told they could dance to the music—so long as they stayed six feet apart.