Portland schools may reopen with combination of classroom, remote learning

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Portland Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana on Monday recommended a hybrid model for the reopening of schools in September, with students receiving a combination of classroom and remote instruction.

The district plan also calls for the start of school to be delayed until Sept. 14.

The School Board was slated to hear a presentation from Botana and take public comment at its Tuesday night meeting, Aug. 4. The board isn’t expected to vote on the proposal until Aug. 18.

Botana declined to be interviewed on the subject prior to the Aug. 18 vote.

His plan, as outlined in the board’s meeting packet, calls for elementary school students through fifth grade to attend classes in person two days a week for five-hour days, with alphabetical splits to determine which students attend on a given day. The hope is to have all those students back to five days per week by mid-October.

The plan calls for middle school and ninth-grade high school students to have in-person instruction twice a week, while grades 10-12 would have remote classes four times a week. These students would have in-person or virtual office hours available for support.

Middle school students would go for five hours on a given day, and ninth-graders for three hours. Grades 10-12 would attend classes for 6 1/2 hours a day.

Wednesdays would be reserved for student outreach and teacher planning, and no lessons or assignments would be given.

School Department representative Tess Nacelewicz said the board won’t make any decisions prior to Aug. 18, since it wants two cycles of recommendations from the Maine Department of Education before making a local decision.

On July 31, the DOE released its first advisory for each of Maine’s 16 counties on plans for the school year. The DOE recommended all 16 counties reopen schools for in-person learning, with social distancing rules enforced. The recommendations came in the form of a color-coded risk scale, ranging from green, which means risk is low and schools can resume, to red, meaning there is high risk and schools should stick to online classes.

The Portland Public Schools Central Office at 353 Cumberland Ave. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

All 16 counties were green as of July 31. The Portland school year is slated to begin Aug. 31.

In a July 24 letter to district families, Botana said a “remote learning option” will be provided to families who do not wish to have their children physically go to school during the pandemic.

Whether schools should reopen is being debated across the country as COVID-19 continues to spread. Many experts have predicted a second wave of the virus may hit in the fall or winter.

According to a July 31 report in The New York Times, researchers at the University of Texas said the risk for students and teachers varies considerably depending on the area and size of the school. Their research suggests more than 80 percent of Americans live in a county where at least one infected person would be expected to show up in a school of 500 students and staff in the first week.

The likelihood increases in high-risk areas, such as Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Nashville, and Las Vegas, and especially in urban areas, where class sizes are often very large.

The Texas study, however, suggests smaller, isolated groups of students face lower risks.

Compared with other parts of the country, Maine has fared relatively well during the pandemic, with lower infection rates and a much lower mortality rate. Through Sunday, Aug. 2, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 3,970 cases in the state; 123 people had died in Maine. The statewide case rate was just under 30 per 10,000 people, and the seven-day average for new cases was down to 20.1.

Cumberland County continued to have the most cases – more than 2,000 – and 68 of the deaths.

The Portland Public Schools have already taken steps towards limiting possible student exposure.

On July 30, the School Department announced high school sports activities would be delayed until at least Aug. 24, following a decision from the Maine Principals’ Association to move the start date of the fall sports season from Aug. 17 to Sept. 8.

Additionally, the MPA announced schools may only hold fall sports conditioning workouts in a window between Aug. 17 and Sept. 7.