Courtesy Jesse Robinson
Math Coach Carlie Frederick with books she organized at the Remote Academy school supply distribution at Deering High School in Portland on Sept. 22. (Courtesy Jesse Robinson)
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Jesse Robinson recently called on her family to help sharpen 937 pencils.

It might not sound like a typical first-day-of-school task, but the sharpening was part of an unprecedented opening week for the Portland School Department: welcoming nearly 1,000 students who were learning from home.

While Robinson remains the director of curriculum, assessment, and instruction for the Portland Public Schools, this year she is also the interim director of Remote Academy – now the city’s largest public school as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“It’s been a little bumpy to get things off the ground, but it feels like what we’re trying to do is get all those systems in place that a normal school has, and meanwhile addressing technology challenges,” she said Sept. 24.

Courtesy Jesse Robinson
Jesse Robinson, director of curriculum, assessment and instruction for the Portland Public Schools, is also the interim director of the School Department’s Remote Academy this year. Remote Academy is now the city’s largest public school with nearly 1,000 students. (Courtesy Jesse Robinson)

One of the ways administrators have had to prepare is by setting up outdoor distribution sites for school supplies, which provide students with pencils, textbooks, and other necessary materials. The School Department has two distribution centers open on Tuesdays from 3-6 p.m., at Deering High School and King Middle School.

The Remote Academy serves students in preschool through eighth grade and was created to offer families an alternative to in-person learning this academic year. 

Ninth-grade students also have the option to go remote-only, but their learning is not managed centrally by Remote Academy. High-schoolers in grades 10-12 are learning entirely remotely four days a week until further notice.

The School Board approved Superintendent Xavier Botana’s school re-opening plan on Aug. 19. It included a hybrid model for in-person instruction in most grades, as well as the Remote Academy option. Botana said he plans to reevaluate the model in mid-October.

Robinson said the district always had a plan to offer a “centralized solution to the remote option,” which formerly included having a pool of teachers to instruct students from across the district. But when more than 900 students chose to go remote, a new strategy was needed.

“Our plan always was to have a teacher leader run the elementary school and a teacher leader to run the middle school,” Robinson said. “On a district level it made sense for me to sort of manage those teacher leaders, but then when this happened it was just so big it made sense for me to step in and be an interim director.”

Robinson said administrators found out the week after the School Board decision that 937 students would join Remote Academy, which gave the district less than a month to plan and fill teacher positions for the first day of school on Sept. 14. 

She said she is far from the only one working hard to ensure the new normal is a success.

“Everyone I talk to in education, at really every level, is working late nights (and) early mornings to pull this thing off,” she said. She estimated, for example, that she has received approximately 200 or 300 emails per day in recent weeks.

Other staff members have also taken on additional roles, Robinson said, and helped take on some of her usual responsibilities as she transitioned to leading Remote Academy. 

How it works

A typical day for a remote student begins with either a morning meeting or an advisory period, which allows them to connect with their classmates face-to-face via video conference and discuss any “social-emotional” needs they may have with their instructor. 

After that, students have two periods throughout the day known as “synchronous” academic time, which means teachers are instructing them via a real-time video conference.

Courtesy Jesse Robinson
Beth Linevitch, left, and Carol Ridlon of the Portland School Department’s Academic Team with math books for Remote Academy students Sept. 22. The district is distributing school supplies on Tuesdays from 3-6 p.m. at Deering High School and King Middle School. (Courtesy Jesse Robinson)

They also have two “asynchronous academic opportunities,” which entail working on a lesson independently with support available. Asynchronous time could include doing assigned reading or working on problems in a math workbook. 

Every Wednesday remote students have the opportunity to receive additional academic support from staff if they need it.

One of the biggest issues so far with Remote Academy has been technological problems. Robinson said the School Department’s goal is to have laptop computers available for each Remote Academy student in preschool through fifth grade because it is “challenging to do Remote Academy” if a family “(doesn’t) have a device in the home.”

However, a large order of computers is backlogged and will not be delivered until Nov. 1. Because of a state requirement, every public school student in grades six through 12 already has a district-issued laptop, which Robinson said has made launching remote middle school instruction “a little less bumpy.”

She also said the School Department “did not do as good of a job” as it should have in communicating with multilingual families during the back-to-school process. Some of them ended up selecting the wrong option when signing their children up for Remote Academy or in-person instruction.

Superintendent Xavier Botana apologized for the tumultuous beginning in a video message sent to Remote Academy families Sept. 18.

He acknowledged the department’s “hardworking staff” who he said had worked “tirelessly” to prepare for the launch of Remote Academy, and asked families to extend “goodwill and grace” to them in what he called these “trying times.”

“They are dedicated and committed public servants and professionals, please do not blame them for any shortcomings in the launch,” Botana said. “The responsibility for any lapse in planning or execution rests solely with me.”

He also discussed school supply shortages Remote Academy has dealt with, as well as a lack of elective options and fewer intervention supports, and asked parents not to interrupt in remote instruction lessons.

Internet access has also been an issue in some cases, but Robinson said the School Department recently received 99 hot spots to distribute to families who need them.

Courtesy Jesse Robinson
CC Robinson, Jesse Robinson’s sister-in-law and a teacher at Casco Bay High School, helps sharpen 937 pencils to distribute to Remote Academy students earlier this month. (Courtesy Jessie Robinson)

Despite the challenges, she said the spirit of “collective problem solving” from teachers has been “really amazing.” 

She also said Remote Academy still has a lot of “flux” in its enrollment, and she expects some students will elect to return to in-person instruction if it is available at the end of the semester, just as some currently learning in person may decide to join Remote Academy. 

If hundreds of students currently in classrooms decide to go remote, however, she said the schools will have to adjust staffing. 

The School Department is also working to maintain Remote Academy students’ connection to their “home schools,” to make the transition back to in-person instruction smooth when that time comes.

Although Remote Academy does not have the infrastructure of a regular school, Robinson said the necessary systems are “coming together.” For instance, she said the district has funding to hire two technology coordinators to provide additional support.

Botana expressed the same sentiment in his video message to families.

“We’re moving quickly to resolve issues as we learn of them but I expect we will continue to find new layers of challenge as we do that,” he said. “I ask for your patience and resilience as we strive for a great experience for your children.”