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RSU 39 board delays Caribou Community School opening

CARIBOU, Maine — With uncertainties surrounding Caribou Community School construction deadlines amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the RSU 39 (Caribou and Stockholm) Board of Education voted Aug. 19 to begin PreK-eight classes remotely until Oct. 13, after harvest break.

Caribou High School is still scheduled to reopen for hybrid learning on Aug. 24, with all K-eight students beginning remote learning on Sept. 8 and Pre-K students starting remote learning on Sept. 28.

RSU 39 Superintendent Tim Doak said during the meeting that after numerous visits to the new school construction site and several meetings with the architect, contractors and fellow staff members, he recommended that the board look at delaying the opening of the building.

“Numerous spots of the building are ready, and numerous spots of the building are not ready,” he said. “I can’t risk the safety of putting children in a building that still has construction workers in it.”

He told the board that while it was difficult to suggest delaying the opening, it should be done for the safety of both staff and students.

Board member Jan Tompkins asked Doak if the contractor, Bowman Constructors, has indicated that there would be any delays.

Doak said the contractor’s goal is to still finish the project on time, and that construction projects throughout the state have been particularly hard on contractors. 

“This has nothing to do with Bowman,” Doak said. “I think it has to do with COVID a little, because all through the summer a lot of things were not delivered on time. They’re working as hard as they can.”

On Oct. 13, Doak said it is his intention to be able to open Caribou Community School with the green model, allowing all students to physically attend classes, provided the number of active cases in the area is low. 

Teacher materials are currently in the Teague Park Elementary School gym. Doak said the area is “packed tight like a sardine can,” but that all of the items are organized well enough for somewhat easy access.

Assistant Superintendent Jane McCall said custodial staff will help teachers access these materials as they prepare to teach in the new building, adding that the delayed opening will give staff additional time to acclimate to remote learning, or the “red” model, which all RSU 39 schools will need to adopt if there is a surge of cases in the region.

RSU 39 Board Chairperson Tanya Sleeper said that with the high school beginning earlier, it will help teachers and staff further understand the new learning environment and ease the transition when PreK-eight students begin to physically attend the Caribou Community School.

The board voted to open the new school in October with the hopes of adopting the green model if COVID-19 case numbers are low. 

Doak said that while he hopes the school will be able to go green, he acknowledged that it will not be an easy feat due to Caribou’s relatively larger student population.

For example, he said if 10 students in each group are attending a social studies class under the yellow model. The classes would consolidate to 20 students in the green model, and there would be issues accommodating that number of students while still adhering to social distancing guidelines.

He said schools in southern Maine, such as Gorham, are opting to go red because of difficulties associated with meeting state guidelines while having such a large student population.

“If you truly follow the guidelines,” he said, “it’s very hard to do.”

He said the school has purchased two new buses, which will be required under the green model to accommodate the maximum number of students allowed while adhering to the guidelines. 

“There was pressure to get everyone back to school,” he said, “but the pressure, I believe, came from people who do not understand how schools are run, but we’re going to make it work. Keeping our staff and students safe keeps our families safe, and that’s a big responsibility. We’re one birthday party, one funeral, or one wedding away from disaster.”

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