Release: MDOE coordinated with teachers union, other groups in planning Maine’s COVID-19 response
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
September 13, 2022
Contact: Jacob Posik
Director of Communications
Maine Department of Education Coordinated with Teachers Union,
Other Groups in Planning Maine’s COVID-19 Response in K-12 Schools
Interest groups representing teachers, administrators, principals and school boards were given access and editing permission to official COVID-19 response documents. No groups representing students or parents were given the same privileges during school shutdowns.
PORTLAND, Maine – The Maine Department of Education (DOE) gave a small number of interest groups access and editing permission to official guidance documents related to school reopenings, graduation procedures, and other functions in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of those groups, including the Maine Education Association (MEA) and the Maine School Management Agency (MSMA), made recommendations that were incorporated into official guidance issued by the department. The department also coordinated on messaging with these and other entities, in addition to discussing the withholding of Coronavirus Relief Funds from districts which did not follow reopening procedures.
Communications obtained by The Maine Wire, Maine Policy Institute’s online news and opinion website, through a Freedom of Access Act (FOAA) request show the following, among other findings:
- The DOE altered an FAQ document related to a Gov. Janet Mills’ executive order concerning the requirement to pay hourly employees for the 2019-2020 school year at the request of MEA and MSMA.
- The Maine Curriculum Leaders Association circulated a draft statement to the DOE, MEA, and the MSMA which was edited by all parties involved and eventually published recommendations against giving students failing grades during the shutdown in the name of equity.
- The DOE solicited feedback from the MSMA, MEA, and Maine Principals’ Association (MPA) for guidance on graduation ceremonies, and made changes at their request. Early draft versions of the guidance included the names of all collaborating entities. However, the MEA eventually asked to be removed because the guidance failed to state that educators could not be forced to attend the ceremonies. After the MEA’s request, the DOE eventually removed the names of all collaborating entities before publishing the final notice.
- An initial draft framework for reopening schools and returning to in-person instruction was circulated by the DOE to the MEA, MSMA, MPA, MCLA and the Maine Administrators of Services for Children with Disabilities (MADSEC). The attachment is linked in communications obtained by The Maine Wire in its FOAA request, but was never made accessible for review after numerous requests to the DOE to obtain it. The Maine Wire was unable to review the edit history of the document but knows it was distributed to the above groups for their edits and feedback.
- The MEA took credit in communications to its members in getting the DOE to waive the required number of school days, in addition to the suspension of mandated standardized testing.
- The MEA pressured the DOE for school staff to continue being paid during the shutdown despite schools being closed. The governor eventually issued an executive order to this effect.
- The MEA wanted all school employees to be paid and be deemed “essential” during the shutdown, but raised concerns when school staff were asked to perform “non-essential” duties like cleaning school buses. Emails show the union succeeded in its effort to change the definition of essential employee, which didn’t require staff to be present at school or performing tasks.
- One of several draft documents related to the definition of an essential employee, which was subject to our request, was deleted and never turned over to The Maine Wire after numerous requests to the DOE to produce it. Emails show Commissioner Makin and MEA officials edited the document, however it was never produced for full review.
- The MEA worked to delay the reopening of schools, saying the focus should be on safety rather than reopening. It communicated displeasure with and pushed back on recommendations from Maine’s Economic Recovery Committee and the American Association of Pediatrics to reopen schools and return to in-person instruction. During an exchange on the subject of the AAP guidance, Commissioner Makin said to MEA officials that “while the AAP is correct in their assertion that school is typically the safest and healthiest place for students to be, it is clear that their guidance was written by doctors and not by educators,” as if educators, not medical professionals, should be the authority on when it was safe for schools to reopen.
- Makin, Leavitt, and MSMA officials also communicated about withholding Coronavirus Relief Funds from districts that did not strictly abide by guidelines related to reopening schools. Leavitt asked for the DOE to remind the Jefferson district that they can lose funding if they did not follow the guidelines. Makin also said that “taxpayers would be upset if they heard the school boards were going to leave hundreds of thousands on the table in CRF.” However, Makin in previous emails said the department’s reopening framework did not “replace or negate a district’s plan for reopening. It is meant to be used as a guide – with considerations listed that may be helpful…for calibrating their own plans/models for reopening.” It appears the commissioner and officials from the MEA and MSMA had conversations offline with administrators and board members in certain districts where they did not plan to follow all recommendations, urging compliance or funding would be withheld. It’s unclear whether the DOE ever had the authority to withhold funding from districts, but it’s clear they pressured some districts that it was a possibility if they did not comply.
The communications uncovering the above findings and more were published today in a three-part series written by Katherine Revello on The Maine Wire. The articles are available at the links below:
- Maine DOE gave MEA, other groups access and editing privileges to official COVID response documents
- Emails show how MEA, other interest groups steered Maine DOE’s COVID-19 response
- Maine DOE, MEA discussed withholding relief funds from schools that didn’t comply with COVID rules
“It’s clear that the Maine DOE worked closely with interest groups throughout the pandemic shutdown period, giving them early access and editing permission to guidance documents which should have been solely in the purview of medical professionals, not the teachers union or school administrators,” said Maine Policy chief executive officer Matthew Gagnon.
“Notably absent in these communications is any understanding of the impacts of closing schools on students and parents. Organizations representing teachers, administrators, superintendents and school boards were consulted throughout the process while students and parents were left behind. Students’ education suffered due to the poor decisions made by Maine DOE during this time. The public was led to believe that these decisions were being made by ‘science.’ What they didn’t tell us was that certain interest groups were allowed to inject their priorities into the official response along the way,” Gagnon concluded.
All of the communications turned over to The Maine Wire as part of its FOAA request can be viewed here.
Maine Policy Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works to expand individual liberty and economic freedom in Maine. Learn more about our work at www.mainepolicy.org.