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Valley Unified responds to and prepares for coronavirus

FRENCHVILLE, Maine — Valley Unified called a joint meeting Monday night, March 16, between the three school administrative units of SADs 27 and 33 and Madawaska School Department to go over its four-part plan to combat the spread of coronavirus. 

Superintendent Ben Sirois sent out the emergency meeting notification over the weekend, just prior to the decision to follow suit with a vast majority of Maine, and close all the schools within Valley Unified, which encompasses those from the three SAUs. 

“The school closure is not about locking down the school,” Sirois said at the meeting. “If you need to access the schools as community members you can, especially if your student needs something — a service, a book from their desk, something out of their locker — the school is not on lockdown.” 

Sirois said the primary reason for the closure of the schools is to limit the contact between students and staff and faculty. 

The plan consists of four parts: the remote learning plan, the school lunch plan, the staff work plan, and school-based services and facility access. 

Part one  — remote learning — is a three-phase plan. Phase one, which begins this week, is meant to extend the learning that has already occurred in the classroom, and provide work for the students to complete at home that will reiterate what they learned already. During this phase, the teachers are preparing to send the correct learning materials to the students. 

Phase two, which covers the weeks of March 23 through April 3, is the enrichment phase, when teachers will give activity assignments. Some will be based on technology and others will not.

“Enrichment will not require a teacher to deliver instruction,” Sirois said.

The third phase will consist of remote instruction estimated to take place beyond April 6, when teachers will arrange to instruct the students remotely using an array of technology. 

“That’s going to be very scary and very weird, because we don’t know how well that’s going to work. We don’t know the success rate of that, but we are in the same boat as every school in the nation right now with this remote thing,” he said. 

There is no specific platform teachers are using across the board to ensure the teachers have a say in their instruction, Sirois said. 

Sirois said regarding the accessibility of technology and internet that there are other resources to look at like Spectrum’s free internet offer and temporary permissions for students to take their devices such as laptops home from school.

School lunch comprises part two of the overall plan, which will make the nutrition program an extension of the summer meal plan. This will begin March 17 and will provide meals to youths under 18 Monday through Friday while school is out. 

Sirois said that officials would be going door to door asking families if they would like to be part of the program, which is not hindered by income requirements. 

“It’s going to be a lot of work but it’s worth figuring out who needs these lunches because we don’t want any kid going hungry,” Sirois said. 

Each daily meal will have that day’s lunch and the next morning’s breakfast provided.

Part three is the staff work plan. Sirois assured the collective boards that he was going to ensure stability for the staff. 

“We don’t want anyone losing work, losing hours or going without because the school is closed,” he said. 

All administrators, nurses, information technology staff and kitchen staff will work as usual, according to Sirois. 

“Just with the lunch program alone, we’re going to have to divide and conquer,” he said. 

Part four of the plan involves school facility access and limiting the use of the public spaces while still maintaining important services to students. 

Some of the programs Valley Unified intends to continue are special education services, therapy sessions for speech, occupational and physical — as well as counseling sessions, Title IA services, teacher access, IT support, meal program and the backpack program. 

As for access, staff is encouraged to continue as normal with reminders for social distancing as well as the recommendation to limit gatherings to fewer than 10 people. Public access to school buildings will be by appointment only, and there will no longer be any use of the public gym, fitness center, weight rooms, cafeteria, classrooms and no rental of school spaces for lessons, classes or fundraising events until further notice. 

In addition to the four-part plan, Sirois said that with the help of a network of superintendents in The County, they have been able to work together to bounce learning ideas off of each other. 

Sirois said that what they implement over the next few weeks could help shape how the unit handles instruction for future snow days. 

The attending school boards approved the remote learning plan as well as gave Valley Unified the opportunity to alter the school calendar as needed.

“You need to know that the plan might change tomorrow,” Sirois said.

Valley Unified’s overall plan is to ensure that the students continue to get instruction throughout the time the schools are closed rather than end it with the discontinuance of formal classes. For this reason, Sirois said they designed the plan to cover four weeks, not just the recommended two.  

“I’m going to level with you. I do not think this is going to just be a two-week thing and then it’s all over,” Sirois said. “I think that’s going to be our reality for quite a while … I can tell you that what we’ve done in a short amount of time is a solid plan that has a lot of support from our staff.” 

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