Portland schools prepare for hybrid reopening on Sept. 14

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After about 12 hours of discussion over two nights, the Portland School Board unanimously approved a plan to restart school in a hybrid model this fall.

Board members said Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana’s intention to evaluate the plan in mid-October was a key factor in their decision.

Schools will open Sept. 14, about two weeks later than usual. Botana called his plan a conservative one, a hybrid model that blends in-person learning with remote teaching.

The plan 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. 

Botana said the goal would be to have all elementary students back to five days per week when they evaluate in mid-October. He said the delay gives the School Department time to see if it is able to avoid COVID-19 infections and solidify practices that acclimate students to being back in school.

Middle school and ninth-grade high school students will 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.

Portland Public Schools opted to close schools in April, and finished the year teaching students remotely.

The board defeated an amendment to the plan by member Marnie Morrione, which would have had grades 10-12 having at least two days of in-person education available. While most board members agreed it is important for these high school students to get in-person education, they also said it was too late in the discussion cycle to change Botana’s plan.

Morrione said she feared high school students would face a “disconnect” by only having virtual learning, especially in a time where many students are preparing to apply for or go to college. She said she didn’t have a specific recommendation to resolve that situation, but said one or two days where students can be with their cohort, such as in a lab for biology class, would be beneficial.

The measure was defeated, and Assistant Superintendent of Schools Aaron Townsend said while the district would like to send more students back, it would be “exceedingly complicated” to balance all scheduling needs.

There was also some discussion about why Portland was going with a more conservative plan, as Botana described, than some neighboring districts. Botana defended his staff’s decision, saying those plans are not necessarily better, but the districts weighed the same decisions Portland was facing and came out with different conclusions.

Portland Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana: “We are being more conservative than many places that are opening when they shouldn’t be.”

Botana said he and staff did not want to go to an entirely remote style of teaching unless they had to, and were prepared to switch if it proves necessary. He said it was important for students, especially in the younger grades, to go to school to make connections with teachers and peers that cannot be achieved through remote learning.

“We believe in-person teaching is superior to remote teaching,” Botana said during the Aug. 18 portion of the meeting, although he acknowledged they will likely have to teach remotely for portions of the year. “If and when this happens, our teachers and staff will work tirelessly to make it the best.”

Botana and his staff argued that even though Cumberland County has the highest rate of COVID-19 in the state, overall the cases are decreasing. He said compared to other cities and states around the country attempting to reopen their schools, Portland has significantly lower rates.

Botana, who was hired in 2015 after previously working at a school district in Indiana, said he would not be proposing this plan in his previous district.

“We are being more conservative than many places that are opening when they shouldn’t be,” Botana said.

A handful of high school students spoke against the hybrid plan, saying they want to be able to return to school. Lydia Stein, an incoming senior at Portland High School, said it was a “huge mistake” to not let all students return, especially high school students preparing for college.

“Academically I barely learned anything from online learning,” she said.

Stein said she is angry, and asked how they expected students to prepare for college while trying to learn remotely from home. She said grades 10-12 are also the most likely to develop mental health problems such as depression, and sitting in their rooms at home all day would only add to that potential.

“I’m saddened and almost ashamed by these decisions,” she said. “They don’t reflect what students want or need.”

Several teachers also spoke, expressing the desire to return to school, but also concern about the circumstances.

Judy Harris, a teacher at Talbot Community School, said she is “terrified” about being a remote teacher.  She said while the spring session of remote learning was “emergency learning,” being remote on a regular basis is not the right path.

“That is not something I got into teaching to do,” she said. “It’s not something I’m an expert in.”

Another teacher, Claudia Mejia, said remote learning worked in the spring because her students already knew her, but it wouldn’t work with a totally new class of students. She said she wouldn’t have the same impact if she couldn’t start in class with her students.

“I want to see my students, I want to greet them,” she said. “I want to build relationships. It’s important for my students to see me in my classroom.”

Teacher Amy Reed said she is afraid to go back to the classroom, but despite that, she wants to go back to a five-days-per-week style with her students.

Several parents expressed a similarly wide range of emotions. Some were eager to send their children back to school, others had concerns that will keep them home.

Botana said families that did not wish to have their children go to in-person education could apply for the all-remote academy style.

Amy Fink, a mother of two students at Reiche Elementary School, said a pandemic “is not forever, it is a ‘now’ situation” that calls on the district to make difficult choices and priorities. She said ultimately, safety should come first over getting students back into the schools.

Fink predicted COVID-19 cases will go up as soon as the schools are reopened, and pointed out that many companies are continuing to have employees work remotely. She said the district should focus on perfecting the remote model and not waste money pursuing in-person learning.

“We’re spending resources we can’t get back, putting time and resources into something fleeting,” Fink said.

Avery Kamila, a mother of a second-grader, said no matter what decision the board and School Department make, people would be upset. However, she said despite her child not doing well with online learning in the spring, and despite wanting to send her child back, the model Botana presented was not appropriate. She said the short hours of instruction make the plan more disruptive for students than being at home learning remotely.

“We want to get back to top-notch schooling, but we’re realizing the hybrid model is not the option for us,” Kamila said. “We’re having to choose the online option, it’s not what we want.”

Although board members unanimously supported the measure, many expressed concerns they weighed in reaching the decision.

Anna Trevorrow said it was the board’s obligation to create “optimal learning conditions,” and the benefits of returning to an in-person model would have to outweigh any potential health risks. She said this model does that, is innovative and effective, and as a district was the best that could be done now.

Sarah Thompson said this was the hardest decision she has had to make during her 13 years on the School Board, a sentiment that was echoed by other board members.

“We have to make hard decisions sometimes, and this is one of them,” Thompson said.

Chair Roberto Rodriguez agreed. But he said the district had to put plans in place to mitigate risk, and this strategy does that.

“I can relate to the fear, I can relate to the hesitation,” Rodriguez said. “I think this is the right thing to do for our school district, but I recognize this is not the right thing to do for a lot of individuals.”

The decision had initially been scheduled for an Aug. 18 vote. But the board adjourned the first night of the meeting after the workshop stretched into six hours. Members returned Aug. 19 for more workshop discussion, and to allow the public time to speak.

More than 40 people spoke Aug. 19 during the public comment portion of the meeting.