PORTLAND, Maine — Maine leads the country in vaccination percentage. None of its counties is considered at high risk of COVID-19. Outdoor gatherings are scheduled to return to full capacity by the end of May.
But even as states with more worrisome infection rates open their schools to all students, in-person learning remains inconsistent in Maine, where the state’s decentralized approach has created a patchwork system of in-person and hybrid learning that can vary from one town to the next.
President Biden has urged states to open schools as soon as possible and give teachers priority for the vaccine. But Maine has left the decision to local officials, giving rise to a polarizing debate that has pitted neighbor against neighbor, and angry parents who want full, in-person schooling against school boards that remain resistant.
Some districts are still unsure whether they will even reopen fully in the fall, pointing to the unpredictability of COVID-19 and logistical problems in keeping students safe.
“I see the struggles with my children. I see the impact of the lack of social interaction,” said Nick Begin, a father of three school-age daughters who wants in-class learning expanded to five days from two in Cumberland and North Yarmouth, a suburban district north of Portland. “Why are we willing to accept this long-term danger?”
Begin launched a Facebook group in late February called Back to Five that began as a forum for local discussion about the reopening process. Now, it’s a social media magnet for more than 3,000 similarly minded parents across this sprawling state.
It’s a movement that is questioning why one of the safest states during the pandemic lacks more urgency in returning children to school. Unlike Massachusetts and New Hampshire, where state officials have ordered schools reopened, Maine has deferred to its school boards and the principle of local control.
But the process has been rancorous here. Further inflaming the debate has been a surge of new COVID-19 cases, a rate that has nearly doubled in Maine from a month ago.
Last week, four of Maine’s 16 counties were deemed at elevated risk for COVID-19, the middle of three tiers that the state uses. All had previously been at low risk since mid-March.
“This has gotten so ugly in our town,” said Kim Vine, a Cumberland parent of seventh- and ninth-graders. “I would very much like for my children to be back in school, but I am choosing to trust that the school board has done its job.”
Those who support the district’s officials have plenty of vocal opposition. Signs calling for the superintendent to be fired have been placed around town. Begin and others are seeking the recall of four Cumberland school board members who voted on April 6 to remain hybrid for the rest of the school year.
“I have never seen anything like this,” Vine said.
Neither has Tyler McGinley, the school board chair, who faces a recall vote in June if critics collect enough signatures by May 7. She hopes the schools can return full time in the fall, but even that is not guaranteed.
“Our patience, our ability to support our families have been tried to the point where people are breaking,” said McGinley, who has one child in kindergarten and another scheduled to begin kindergarten in the fall.
McGinley said that she won’t look at Facebook, but that friends have shared comments with her via screenshots. One post questioned whether she actually had children, McGinley said.
“It feels a little personal,” she said.
Begin said that his goal is to keep the Back to Five site nonpolitical, and that he is interested solely in returning children safely to school as quickly as possible. One of the obstacles, he said, is the Maine teachers union.
“They’re putting out fear in the teachers that it’s dangerous to go back,” Begin said.
Grace Leavitt, president of the 24,000-member Maine Education Association, dismissed that argument.
“Our position has been and will continue to be that things need to be done safely,” said Leavitt, a Spanish teacher who is on leave from the Cumberland-North Yarmouth district. “The decisions are being made by local school boards, not by the union.”
Begin said part of his frustration stems from a sense that the school board is not open to creative thinking about ways to reopen.
A state mandate of 3 feet between desks, 6 feet between children at meals, and 6 feet between pupils and staff could be achieved by using space at churches and community centers, Begin said.
“The shoe doesn’t fit every district. I wish it did,” McGinley said. “To say that we are struggling with [classroom] space, in addition to the spacing requirements, is an understatement.”
Becky Demers, a registered nurse from Cumberland with first- and third-graders, said she sees the toll on them and her husband, who works full time at home while trying to keep the children focused on schoolwork.
“They’ve been a lot more emotional at home, crying about not being able to go to school,” Demers said.
The debate continues in Cumberland while nearby districts approve more time in the classroom. But how many districts have reopened fully and how many remain hybrid is largely guesswork. The state Education Department said it doesn’t keep count.
In the district that serves Freeport, Durham, and Pownal, all students from prekindergarten through high school have received in-person learning five days a week since April 5. In Yarmouth, all schools are scheduled to return four days a week beginning May 3.
State Representative Laurel Libby, a Republican from Auburn, is concerned about the emotional and social effects of more than a year’s absence from full-time learning. Already, she said, the state is experiencing a pediatric mental-health crisis.
In March, Libby was one of 52 lawmakers who sent a bipartisan letter to state education and health officials, urging that the 3-foot spacing rule be rescinded and that districts be allowed to dictate their own spacing requirements.
“If we start approaching this with how can we fix this, rather than how can’t we fix it, we can get kids back in school,” Libby said.
But whether all Maine students can return to school in the fall remains undetermined.
“If I had a nickel every time that question has been asked, I might look at retirement,” said Leavitt, the union president. “I don’t have a crystal ball; nobody does. We don’t know where this is going.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.