Erskine Academy faces challenge of a year like no other

Erskine Academy Headmaster Michael McQuarrie self-swabbing for the rapid antigen test onsite in the school nurse’s office. (photo courtesy of Erskine Academy)

by Jeanne Marquis

This month Erskine Academy began implementing the rapid antigen test in its arsenal in the fight against Covid-19. Headmaster Michael McQuarrie was the first to complete the testing process. The rapid antigen test is designed for persons exhibiting at least one of the most common symptoms or two less common symptoms of COVID-19. The procedure is voluntary and involves self-swabbing the lower portion of each nostril. The new rapid testing at school provides results in 15 minutes.

This capability provides increased safety for individual families and the general community with the immediate identification of COVID-19. With the knowledge provided by adequate testing, safety processes such as quarantine and contact tracing can begin immediately.

Since the beginning of the school year, 67 students/staff have been dismissed or unable to attend school due to COVID symptoms, most of which before COVID would not result in absences. Without being able to differentiate symptoms of COVID from other common illnesses, schools have had to exclude symptomatic students and staff, requiring them to remain home for up to 10 days while symptoms subsided or while awaiting a COVID test at an alternative location, which at times could take up to a week to return.

McQuarrie explains, “What became evident since the pandemic began is – our young people want to be in school. Erskine Academy is excited to be part of a big step forward in making that happen. This new testing process clears students and staff to return to the classroom much sooner, which comes as a ray of sunshine during what has been a school year like no other.”

Preparations for this year began last spring. Headmaster Michael McQuarrie and his staff knew the ’20-’21 academic year would be challenging. They would have to be prepared to adapt to the diverse needs of their students and be flexible to change when each virus outbreak would occur.

The planning for this year began last spring when our nation first faced the Covid-19 virus. Without any warning, instructors took their classes online for remote learning for the safety of students, staff and our local communities. The staff learned from each other, sharing tech advice, learning what worked and what obstacles remained. Most teachers’ summers were spent brainstorming and researching new technologies to better engage students in multiple mediums. It was clear the threat of Covid-19 would continue in the upcoming school year.

Headmaster McQuarrie moved the staff in-service development days to the front of the ’20-’21 school calendar for intensive workshop days, with both formal and informal training, to prepare for a year facing the pressures of the pandemic. Staff learned the Maine CDC (Center For Disease Control) sanitation requirements and how to simultaneously conduct class for in-class and remote learners within a hybrid structure.

McQuarrie speaks with high praise about his staff in rising to the challenge and credits four instructors for taking on lead roles, acting as resources for others: Holly Tripp, a science teacher; Mark Bailey, mathematics teacher; Ryan Nored, English teacher; David Currier, Social Studies teacher.

Mark Bailey describes the collaboration of this unique year, “Our department (math department) has always worked well with each other, but since last March we have taken that to another level with sharing successes as well as failures with each other. Finding new innovative ways to do the old standards. Many times a pop-in question to one of my colleagues can save us both hours of stumbling through a process. Many days I am mentally exhausted, but on the other hand I feel reinvigorated as a teacher. It is as if we are all first year teachers all over again.”

Ryan Nored explains the added dynamics this year presents. “Teachers are juggling their family and personal lives, more-than-full workloads, and daily experimentation with new technologies, apps, and methods. Our seven-hour classroom time is hectic and harried with new attendance and sanitation duties and our expanded role as parental figures. Our at-home personal time is even more full with extra correction and preparation needs. ”

Nored further explains how the success of this year is due to the strengths of the student body. “I would argue that we have the most hard-working, kind, empathetic and community-driven learners in Maine. To ask them to continue their classloads, family duties, jobs and extracurricular activities all while juggling learning through a new medium, is asking a lot. They have not only excelled, but have maintained their positive attitudes and senses of school-pride and spirit.”

When asked what he worried about this year besides the Covid-19 virus, Headmaster McQuarrie’s answer was “losing the human aspect of education with all the needed technology and sanitation.” McQuarrie says, “Education done well is a human enterprise.”

McQuarrie encouraged school clubs to continue by remote and the Student Council to find solutions to maintain the aspects that make high school memorable such as Spirit Week, stockings for the China Food Bank and their annual toy drive for Little Wanderers, in Waterville. As the community could tell by the holiday lights in December on the Erskine Academy campus, the human spirit thrives even during this tough year.


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