Portland High School students wait to be let in to the building on the first day of school Monday, Sept. 14. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)
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As Portland students headed back to school on a hybrid schedule this week, the School Department and teachers union have agreed to a set of updated working conditions tailored to the COVID-19 era.

The School Board unanimously ratified a memorandum of agreement between the Portland Public Schools and Portland Education Association at a special meeting Sept. 8, although union leaders and teachers still expressed concerns over whether schools were fully prepared to accept students safely.

Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana opened the meeting by outlining the key points of the memorandum, as well as giving updates on the district’s staffing issues, which he said have prevented English language learners from returning to some schools on schedule. 

The Portland School Board ratified an agreement with the Portland Education Association last week on COVID-19 working conditions, but concerns remained about welcoming students back safely. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

Botana said the School Department expects to be able to bring ELL students back for four weekly days of instruction Oct. 13, which is the projected date for all city students to return to schools for five days of in-person instruction.

He also said orientations scheduled for last week were not held at Lyseth Elementary School or King Middle School.

At Lyseth, orientation was not held due to building construction; an inspection was scheduled for Sept. 10. Botana said King was still short-staffed, making it uncertain whether the school would be ready to open for in-person instruction Sept. 14.

Botana confirmed via email Sept. 14 that every city public school opened on schedule, but said the School Department is “still working through some issues with (English language learner) students at several schools.”

Botana said the School Department worked for three weeks with the Portland Education Association to reach a compromise on the COVID-19 work rules. 

A key point of the memorandum allows employees 15 days of emergency sick leave for absences related to COVID-19 in addition to their existing leave benefits. Botana said the time off will cover any employee who becomes ill with coronavirus or needs to care for a sick family member, and ensures the schools will continue to pay staff if they use all of their sick time for a COVID-related reason. 

The memorandum also guarantees the School Department will provide salaries, wages, and benefits to employees in accordance with their collective bargaining agreements through the pandemic. For instance, staff members who coach sports are guaranteed to be paid an amount negotiated by the board and association if their sports season is canceled.

The School Department also agreed to consider making accommodations for employees who are uncomfortable with their image appearing in online video instruction and to reduce the time teachers are required to spend at school outside of school hours for this year only.

Several educators and union leaders urged the School Board to consider postponing orientation if schools were not equipped to reopen.

PEA President Carrie Foster was the first to speak and expressed her gratitude for the collaboration between the union and School Department.

She also said educators were “really concerned” about inviting students to school buildings for in-person orientation last week.

Foster said teachers’ anxieties are mostly the result of lack of training for families regarding the COVID-19 screening app all students must use before coming to school, late deliveries of personal protective equipment, and not having assurance about ventilation system compliance.

Sue Anderson, a teacher at East End Community School, shared several concerns from her colleagues, including not having adequate markings on school floors for social distancing, having to take students’ temperatures, and lack of disinfectant in classrooms.

Michelle Lawless, president of the union representing educational technicians, said she had been fielding up to “12 hours of phone calls” from worried ed techs about a lack of personal protective equipment. Those who work in special education and may be directly exposed to students’ bodily fluids were especially concerned, she said. 

Lawless said messaging from the School Department has been inconsistent, and some ed techs were told “if a student refuses to wear their protective gear, they will be isolated with that student alone in a room, and the rooms that were identified do not have ventilation.”

Stephanie Von Glinsky of the Maine Education Association also spoke and reminded the board that health and safety mandates for reopening issued by the state have “the force of law” behind them.

Botana responded by saying he understands staff concerns and shares in all of them.

He said the department would have more than enough face shields for every staff member by Sept. 14, as well as K-95 and N-95 masks. He said sanitizer was still in the process of being delivered to schools on Sept. 8, along with easy-to-use fans and air purifiers.

Botana also said the COVID-19 screening app does not require training; it generates an email or text message requiring a “yes” or “no” response from parents. It will require a backend report to be completed in school offices for the time being, and any issues with students completing symptom checklists will be addressed by the schools. 

He reiterated this stance on Monday in an email, and said the city’s schools are “mostly set with PPE and ventilation” with some work still scheduled to happen at schools for “the next couple weeks.”

Foster said via email Sept. 14 that last week’s orientation yielded “mixed results” from the screening app, but she expects it to get more efficient as time goes on. She added educators have ongoing questions about building ventilation.

“I think one of the most important things we solidified with the district was the formation of a collaborative team that can address any health and or safety issues,” Foster said. “We’re busy putting that together now so any specific problems can be identified and addressed immediately.”

Botana on Sept. 8 told the board he had experienced many “sleepless nights” over school reopening, and expected them to continue.

“There’s no question that this will not be a flawless start,” he said, “but many of the things you heard today are not factual.”