Teacher vaccinations won’t speed return to Portland classrooms

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Although teachers are now prioritized for COVID-19 vaccinations, the Portland School Department does not expect to bring high school upperclassmen for more in-person learning until late April.

Tess Nacelewicz, communications coordinator for the Portland Public Schools, confirmed via email last week that Gov. Janet Mills’ recent decision to prioritize teachers does not “change the timeline” of Superintendent Xavier Botana’s plan for the return to classrooms.

Botana hopes to bring the city’s sophomores, juniors, and seniors – the only public school students who have had to learn entirely remotely for the past year – into schools for approximately two more hours of in-person instruction per week. The additional in-person time includes two 40-minute blocks of instruction and requires Learning Center time, which was already part of students’ schedules.

Portland School Board at-large member Sarah Jordan Thompson.

Some parents have criticized the plan, and a grassroots group known as Back To School Portland is lobbying to allow all high school students to attend classes in person on a hybrid schedule at least two days per week as soon as possible. 

School Board members Sarah Jordan Thompson and Jeff Irish are members of the group, according to its public Facebook page. 

Several members of Back to School Portland spoke at the March 2 meeting of the School Board, which was held before Mills made her announcement, and reiterated their concerns about the ambiguous timeline for returning to classroom learning. 

Portland resident and Deering High School alumnus Adair Emmons also spoke during the meeting and noted Thompson and Irish’s membership in Back to School Portland. He also criticized what he believes is a lack of racial diversity in Back to School Portland’s membership.

Emmons said that while the school district is 53 percent white, the Facebook group is comprised of “closer to 93 percent” white members. He said despite how vocal Back to School Portland has been, it should not be seen as “representative of the parents or community as a whole.”

“Many parents and students aren’t able to comment at this time because of other life obligations, further showing that this group represents privilege and only one segment of the parent base,” he said. 

Emmons also implied Thompson and Irish are biased because of their membership in the group, which he said advocates for “one side” of the back-to-school issue. He cited a board policy that states elected members will “base their decisions on available facts and avoid bias.”

Portland School Board member Jeff Irish.

He also compared Back to School Portland’s cause with comments made by former President Donald Trump at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, where he spoke in favor of bringing students back to school in-person.

When the decision is being made whether to open schools, Emmons said, staff should ask themselves whether they should listen to “Donald Trump or the head of the (Centers for Disease Control).”

Portland resident Erin Brennan pushed back against Emmons’ claims. She said the parents of Back to School Portland are not only speaking on behalf of their children but “on behalf of the entire community.”

“I take great offense at your comments,” she said. “Regarding Mr. Trump versus the head of CDC, (I’m) pretty sure the CDC advocates being in-person as well, given the right criteria and the right protocols in place.”

Thompson and Irish both said March 8 they do not believe their membership in the Facebook group violates any School Board policies. Board Chair Emily Figdor did not respond to an email last week inquiring whether the rules have been broken.

Thompson said she was invited to join the group by one of the parents involved and sees it as a “communication tool” to help her understand what parents and students are feeling on the issue.

She said she has not spoken out on the topic, but that she is in favor of bringing the students back to school safely. She also acknowledged that Botana has taken what she called “several hits” on the Facebook page, but she thinks he is trying very hard in a “complex environment” to deal with the issue.

As a parent of two children, she said she also understands where parents are coming from and that they are concerned about their children’s mental health.

“I feel for them, the kids are suffering, all kids are suffering,” Thompson said. “If anything, parents are just being parents. They want what’s best for their kids.”

Irish said he believes he is within his rights to be a part of the Facebook group, and that he is always interested in what community members have to say, and sometimes social media is the way to listen.

He said he also favors students getting back to school on a regular basis and he thinks Botana and his team are “working hard to get there.”

“It’s a fair question by (Emmons) and I appreciate his engagement, but sometimes how we get to know what people are thinking is social media,” he said. 

A March 4 letter to public school families and staff from Botana stated the schools are also working on increasing in-person and synchronous learning for students in kindergarten through eighth grade because the existing hybrid model has been “taxing” on students, families, and staff.

At the elementary and middle school levels, the letter states, the district is considering a range of options including bringing back all students for full-time, in-person learning. Less extreme plans include bringing students who have the highest number of chronic absences and those who are “most disengaged” back four days a week, or bringing all students into schools on Wednesdays.

While some schools in the district may start to make “smaller shifts” in their schedules in the coming weeks, Botana said in the letter, administrators hope they can make significant changes after April vacation, which ends April 26.

The letter was posted to Back to School Portland’s public Facebook page, and several comments on the post criticize the proposed timeline. 

The last day of school for students is still scheduled to be June 11.

School Department makes staff diversity a budget priority

Portland officials plan to use the upcoming budget process to help diversify school staff.

Superintendent Xavier Botana said at the March 2 School Board meeting that despite Portland having the most diverse school system in the state, with 40 percent students of color, the staff “continues to be overwhelmingly white.”

The School Department is proposing spending nearly $500,000 in its fiscal year 2022 budget on diversifying its workforce and enlisted an Educators of Color Research Team to take a closer look at the issue and compile a report. Barbara Stoddard, executive director of human resources for the department, presented findings to the board.

According to the data, only 11 percent of city school staff is nonwhite. Six percent of school employees are African American, 2.6 percent are Hispanic/Latinx, 1.9 percent are Asian or Pacific Islander, and the remaining 0.5 percent fall under other categories.

Professor Doris Santoro of Bowdoin College was part of the Educators of Color Research Team, and said while Portland is nearing the 52 percent national average for students of color, the national average for teachers of color is 20 percent, or nearly twice the city’s level.

The number of nonwhite staff has increased significantly since November 2016, when the department only employed 6.6 percent people of color: It already exceeds a five-year goal to have people of color comprise at least 10 percent of the workforce by this November.

Educational technicians were among the job titles with the most people of color: 59 people, or more than 25 percent. 

Stoddard highlighted the research-backed benefits of employing teachers of color – particularly for students of color. She said those students have higher test scores, fewer unexcused absences, and are more likely to graduate high school and succeed in college when taught by diverse teachers. 

In addition to hiring these educators, Stoddard said the department’s focus is also on creating a welcoming culture for new employees of color, where they feel safe and want to remain employees.

It is not possible for the department to simply “hire (its) way out of (its) current state,” she said, adding that the pace of change is “slower than (administrators) would like.” 

Stoddard said the department plans to begin work this spring, continuing into next year, and will include efforts to recruit and retain more diverse staff and to create paths for teachers to become administrators and educational technicians to become teachers.

The schools are also in the process of signing a contract with Educators Rising, a national organization that runs programs to help high school students on the path to becoming educators. The partnership will be partially grant-funded.

More than $466,000 is proposed to be spent on diversifying school employee pools. The proposed allotment includes a full-time BIPOC leadership development role, as well as recruitment support, and funding to expand certain roles within the department, including educational technicians.

Several School Board members spoke in support of the work, including Deering High School student representative Emily Cheung. Cheung, a junior, said she has never had a teacher of color despite having been a student in the public schools since kindergarten.

“I’m very happy to see that more work is being done,” she said. 

— Elizabeth Clemente