Portland resident Dr. Beth Rabbitt addresses the School Board and Superintendent Xavier Botana at their meeting at Casco Bay High School Aug. 17. The board unanimously approved Botana's school reopening plan. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)
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When the last school year ended for the Portland Public Schools more than two months ago, several positive signs seemed to suggest easier days ahead for students and staff: more COVID-19 vaccine availability, fewer infections statewide, and the lifting of most pandemic restrictions. 

But now, with the rise of the Delta variant and still no vaccine approved for children under 12, the schools next week will enter a third academic year amid the uncertainty of COVID-19. Some parents are unhappy with Superintendent Xavier Botana’s back-to-school plan, with many claiming the guidelines are not strict enough to protect their children.

School Board members unanimously approved Botana’s plan at their Aug. 17 meeting, which lasted more than 4 1/2 hours – in part due to comments from nearly 20 members of the public.

Tim Miller, bus driver for Portland Public Schools, in front of a bus on Friday, Aug. 20. All city students will be required to wear masks on buses when school starts on Aug. 31. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

Erica Forsyth told the board that her oldest child was scheduled to begin kindergarten at Harrison Lyseth Elementary School next month, but will not be going.

“I will not be sending my child to school this fall until they are able to be vaccinated as I do not believe there are sufficient measures to prevent the transmission of COVID being implemented within the schools,” Forsyth said. 

She also asked about the district’s position on implementing a mandatory vaccine policy in city schools once the shot is approved for children ages 5-11.

Emily Connolly, who has two children also scheduled to start at Lyseth this year, called the push to have in-person classes “dangerous” to her kids because they are too young to be vaccinated. She also raised concerns about masks not being required for children when they are playing outside, and how schools would switch to virtual learning if needed.

Other parents echoed those concerns and also wanted to know why a robust virtual learning option will not be offered to students under this year’s plan.

Bill Weber said he is in favor of universal masking for staff and students, and suggested the School Department mandate vaccines for staff and students and provide surgical masks to students to allow them to double mask with cloth masks.

Weber said masking and social distancing, paired with vaccinations, are two “proven and effective means to mitigate” the spread of the virus in city schools.

“This isn’t an either-or situation. We must do both,” Weber said. “… Deploying one measure without the other is like trying to fight with one hand tied behind your back.”

The plan

Botana’s plan included some revisions from when board members first read the proposal Aug. 3.

For instance, it now requires all school staff to be masked indoors at all times except when eating, regardless of vaccination status. Masking was previously proposed to be optional for vaccinated staff in indoor, adult-only settings.

Portland Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana.

All students in preschool through 12th grade will be required to wear masks indoors and on buses.

But guidelines vary by grade levels for certain aspects of the plan, including eating. Elementary school students will be required to eat at least 3 feet from each other at all times, utilizing various settings including outdoor spaces and classrooms.

Students in preschool through sixth grade will have weekly pooled testing, which will be funded by a state program. The testing is scheduled to begin Sept. 20 and will involve a weekly look at 10 or 20 students and staff members who volunteer to participate to determine if COVID-19 is present among the group.

The students and staff will be tested via self-administered nose swabs, which will then be mixed at the lab and tested once through a PCR test.

If COVID-19 is found in the pool, members will be subject to a rapid test, and if a student has a positive rapid test result, he or she will have to self-isolate. Students required to isolate will receive assignments from their teachers.

The plan states the School Department is continuing to work to define a threshold at which a class will be moved to remote learning due to exposure. For instance, if half of a class is self-isolating, instruction would move to a remote format.

The option of full-time remote learning will be provided to students who have a verified medical reason for opting out of in-person classes. Families can apply via an online form and will have to provide supporting documentation. The deadline for the paperwork has been extended past its original cut-off of Aug. 13.

Regarding staff vaccination mandates, Botana’s plan states the schools are considering implementing a vaccine requirement for staff and eligible students, and is collecting data on the number of staff members who are vaccinated. The department expects to have that verified count complete before the Sept. 8 meeting of the School Board.

Botana’s presentation acknowledged a staff vaccination requirement may have to be negotiated with their collective bargaining units. The plan states while student vaccine mandates may be permissible, Hawaii is the only state enforcing them at this time for all public school students.

Portland Public Schools will also be offering in-school vaccination clinics for eligible students.

Board members had several questions before approving the plan.

Member Adam Burk asked if the start of school on Tuesday, Aug. 31, could be delayed until more data about vaccination rates is finalized, and told Botana he is “disappointed” with more school operations not being conducted outdoors.

Botana said he spoke with staff about going outside, but the reality of conducting lunch and classes outdoors at all times for all students would be too difficult to implement. He added that while the start of school could be delayed, he does not believe it should.

“For us, getting students into school on time, full-time, is the single most important thing that we’re focused on,” he said.

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