Coronavirus crisis: Portland Public Schools pivot to remote learning

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Portland Public Schools administration and staff have scrambled to develop a new remote learning plan after schools were closed because of the spreading coronavirus. 

But they are concerned that it will increase the achievement gap for disadvantaged students. 

“This crisis has required us to launch a massive experiment in homeschooling with little notice and time to prepare,” Superintendent Xavier Botana wrote in a March 20 letter to parents about the extended closure, now set to run until April 27.

“We recognize that virtual learning cannot replace the everyday experience of being in school, particularly for our least advantaged students, including our students with disabilities, students who are English language learner students and who are homeless,” he said, adding that he was committed to providing the best available experience to those students.

Melea Nalli, Portland’s assistant superintendent
of teaching and learning: “Something that weighs very heavily on us is the fact that different families are frankly going to be set up differently to manage this and make it as fruitful as possible for students.”(Courtesy Portland Public Schools)

The School Board met March 17 to review the plans, adhering to protocols for preventing the spread of the virus. Board members sat at individual school desks set up 6 feet apart, and staff participated via video conference. The meeting was closed to the public but was live-streamed. 

Approving a remote learning plan, Botana said at the meeting, would allow the days the buildings are closed to be counted as learning days that would not have to be made up in the summer. It would also ensure that the district can continue to pay its hourly staff throughout the closure, and that temporary staff on long-term assignments would be paid for their full assignments. 

“The district is committed to continuity of compensation for all of our employees for their regularly scheduled hours,” Barb Stoddard, human resources director, said.

Two days later, on March 19, Gov. Janet Mills signed an executive order requiring schools to continue paying their hourly staff.

While most staff would work remotely, Stoddard said, some will need to report to work, but in staggered shifts to maintain social distancing. For any staff sick with COVID-19 or who needs to be quarantined, or for those with a sick family member they are caring for, the district is offering 10 days of paid sick leave from a district emergency sick bank. 

The remote learning plan relies on the document-sharing, meeting and translation applications Google Drive, Google Classroom, Zoom, Google Chat and Talking Points. Training in these platforms was offered to teachers, and Melea Nalli, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, said 70 teachers participated in the first training. 

Daily lessons of 30-40 minutes each are being offered in math, reading, and writing, with integrated science, technology, and social studies topics. Attendance is recorded based on participation: every day for elementary students and every other day for high school students.

Students are marked as present if they participate in more than 40 percent of activities or questions, and inconsistent participation is noted for students who participate in 40-80 percent of the activities and questions. This data will help gauge the effectiveness of remote learning and let teachers know which students might need more support. 

The same lessons are delivered across schools for each grade level, which Nalli said is catalyzing teacher collaboration across schools. 

One of the negative results of the transition to remote learning is that it is likely to more negatively impact disadvantaged students and widen the opportunity gap. 

“Something that weighs very heavily on us is the fact that different families are frankly going to be set up differently to manage this and make it as fruitful as possible for students,” Nalli said. “It’s something that keeps me up at night. We are going to need to be really thoughtful and intentional about what we do to support students with interventions and add time and support when we are able if the gap widens as a result.”

Botana said the district recognizes that students whose parents must still work might need to follow a different schedule with their school work and complete it when their parents are free. He also called on area employers to be understanding and flexible with workers who need to support children with remote learning at home. 

The School Department is trying to provide equipment for students who do not have the necessary technology. Charter Spectrum is offering free internet access to families with K-12 or college students who do not already have Spectrum internet service, and the first three days of remote learning were not tech-enabled across the district for equal access. Packets of paper-based lessons were distributed in a staggered schedule and without person-to-person contact. 

Accommodations are being made for English language learners, special education students and students in other special programs. English as a second language teachers helped prepare the materials for the first-week packets, and are in frequent communication with families with English language learners. Social workers are continuing to stay in touch with students in social and emotional learning programs. Lessons are being developed with accommodations for special-education students. The district is working on a plan for students with individualized education plans. 

The district is also providing meals to students throughout the closure from 10 a.m.-noon at nine locations: Deering High School, East End Community School, King Middle School, Lyman Moore Middle School, Peaks Island Elementary School, Portland High School, Presumpscot Elementary School, Riverton Elementary School, and Rowe Elementary School. 

The meals are for children and teens only. However, the staff will not be checking names or requiring identification, and children do not have to be present.

Some of the issues the district will continue to work on are how to provide extended school-year opportunities to special-education students; how to make up for lost opportunities for students who were not able to fully access remote learning on day one, such as ESL students or students whose parents are working, and how to assist students for whom learning at home is not a viable option. 

“We have been working in very quick mode to get ourselves operational,” Botana said. “We will muddle through 10 days and then start refining and not just refining but actually moving to different things than we currently have, if and when this becomes a more prolonged closure.”

On Tuesday, March 24, Nalli said the launch of remote learning was successful overall. Tech devices have been distributed to all grades, and the district is working to identify students that may still be in need of equipment, she said. The district is expecting a delivery of wireless hotspots that will be distributed to families that need them.

Nalli said she understands that remote learning places a significant burden on families and that the schools are working to calibrate a reasonable amount to ask of students each day, and their expectations of teachers, many of whom have children at home. She said administrators are clarifying their expectations about how much new learning will be advanced during the closure as opposed to maintaining learning, and discussing ways to address widening gaps in learning once students return.

“Overall, we’ve been impressed and inspired by the ways in which our educators have stepped up to make sure this transition is as seamless as possible for our students,” Nalli said. “Everyone has our students’ well-being front and center in their minds.”