Staff, space constraints require remote learning in Portland schools

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Some Portland parents are concerned about their children’s education because there is no plan for the majority of students to return to in-person learning until at least December. 

Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana and other school officials last week updated School Board members on the decision to remain in the hybrid format, citing staffing and space challenges as primary reasons.

Botana also expressed concerns about the district’s ability to continue funding the current hybrid format into 2021. He said it would require millions of additional dollars to do so, and the School Department must use its state CARES funds – including an additional $6 million that’s still expected to be received – by the end of the year.

The Portland School Board on Oct. 6 discussed administrators’ plans for schools to remain in a hybrid format until further notice due to spacing and staffing concerns. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

“I continue to be concerned that we will need to discontinue a significant number of positions that we have been able to put in place with this funding to support our school reopening,” he said. 

In August, Botana finalized the hybrid reopening plan, which included a commitment to re-evaluate the format this month, with the potential to return elementary students to five days of in-person instruction.

Instead, all mainland elementary school students will remain in the current hybrid plan, attending in-person school only two days per week, until at least the end of the first trimester on Dec. 4. 

An Oct. 6 memo from Assistant Superintendent Aaron Townsend to the board said unless the state changes its mandate requiring students to be 6 feet away from each other during meals, “it will not be possible to bring students back to in-person school five days a week.”

As outlined in the original school reopening plan, middle school students will also continue attending school in the hybrid format until the end of the first trimester.

Guidelines for the city’s public high school students depend on which school they attend.

All 10th- through 12th-grade students at Deering and Portland high schools will continue to attend remotely through at least the first quarter, which ends Nov. 13. Casco Bay High School students will continue in the remote format until at least Dec. 4. 

Several parents of high schoolers objected to the decision to continue all-remote learning.

Gray Street resident Jeremy Stein, who has two children at Portland High School, asked what needs to change at the high school level for students to be able to return to school Nov. 13, and for the district to consider asking for state help in implementing distancing.

Similarly, Clifton Street resident Erin Brennan asked the district to put “at least 1 percent” of the additional $6 million allocated by the state toward space consulting. 

“This is the most inequitable situation I’ve seen and let’s just put our money where our mouths are and bring this back into equity,” Brennan said. “Our high-schoolers are being left out, and so we need to focus on them first.”

Penny St. Lewis of Rosemont Avenue echoed that sentiment, calling the term “hybrid” a “misnomer” when discussing older students’ all-remote learning. 

“We need to remember we are green (under the state’s reopening guidelines, and) we are subjecting 10th- through 12th-graders to a red scenario and that is unfair,” she said. 

In his presentation, Townsend outlined the data school officials used in their decision to remain in a hybrid format for the immediate future.

He said the district has not had any cases of COVID-19 this semester, and Cumberland County remains a green zone in terms of community transmission. But an increase in virus cases in nearby York County, which was designated yellow by the Maine Department of Education in late August and has remained that way, is a “cause for concern” for the Portland Public Schools.

Oxford County was also designated yellow Sept. 25 and Androscoggin County was recently listed as a “watch” area, meaning it will be re-evaluated weekly instead of bi-weekly for the time being.

Townsend also cited cases that have occurred in nearby Cumberland County school districts such as Yarmouth, Scarborough, and Freeport as indicators that there “remains a risk in the overall broader community.”

He added that another key challenge to reopening has been the utilization of the district’s symptom screening tool. He said the number of students not completing the screening before attending school has created a “significant burden on a daily basis” for nurses and other personnel who then must conduct screenings in person.

“The trend most significantly is that our schools with higher populations of multilingual families and higher populations of free and reduced lunch are having the most challenge,” Townsend said. 

If schools were to return to full-time in-person learning, he said the time spent doing those screenings would also likely double, reducing some of the benefits of being back in buildings.

Given physical distancing requirements, he also said several of the district’s buildings would be unable to accommodate the number of students currently enrolled if schools were to return to in-person learning soon. 

Botana also cited the potential for “a significant number of students” currently attending the district’s Remote Academy returning to in-person instruction in December as a hurdle to returning to full in-person learning “in the foreseeable future.”

The School Department found none of the city’s nine elementary schools could accommodate the number of students currently enrolled in the hybrid format plus the district’s Remote Academy students under current safety guidelines.

Attendance in remote learning across the district has been good, Townsend said, but officials will soon be rolling out tools to monitor not just students’ attendance at lessons, but also their engagement in them.

He also said the “most significant weakness” in the district’s school reopening process so far has been with its Learning Center model at the high schools, which was created to give students more in-person learning opportunities.

Going forward, the department plans to require high school students to bank more time at the learning center.

Barbara Stoddard, Portland Public Schools executive director for human resources, also discussed staffing concerns that currently prohibit a full in-person reopening, including nearly 300 requests for flexible work arrangements from staff members. 

Moving to in-person learning would require an additional need for support staff in the elementary and high schools, she said, which would increase the budget deficit by an estimated $365,000 after Jan. 1, 2021.

In the coming weeks, the schools will be working on improving elements of the hybrid format. At the trimester break for elementary and middle school students, administrators will reassess the format again, and if unable to return, will consider lengthening the school day or adding an in-person day to the schedule.

Despite outlining the reasons why the move was necessary, Botana also said he understands the difficulty the hybrid model has posed for the school community.

He added that the schools will “continue to look for ways” to increase child-care options and “make them more accessible” for students and families. 

“We recognize the challenge that two days of in-person instruction and three days remote pose for families,” Botana said, “and we’re extremely grateful for our community partners who have stepped in to provide support to our families during these remote days.”