The Portland School Board met remotely March 31. The discussion included remote learning and the school budget. (Portland Phoenix screenshot/Jordan Bailey)
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The Portland Public Schools has reset its expectations for teachers and students because remote education is proving difficult and some students are still not connecting. 

“Of great concern to me is the sense that this is not sustainable,” Superintendent Xavier Botana told the School Board in a remote meeting March 31. “Our folks are tired. They’re working around the clock for going on three weeks now with three more weeks to come.” 

In response to feedback from teachers, students and families, the board was told the administration has reassessed and set new goals for remote learning. 

Melea Nalli, Portland’s assistant superintendent of teaching and learning. (Courtesy Portland Public Schools)

The first priority, according to Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning Melea Nalli, is for each student to maintain a sense of connection to caring adults. But some students may still not be set up with the technology they need to connect. 

Seventh- and eighth-graders and high school students already had school-issued devices before schools were closed to accomplish social distancing. The schools conducted a survey to find out how many students did not have a way to work online at home, and have since distributed more than 1,050 devices to elementary and sixth-grade students, and they have also been making hotspots available to the approximately 400 families that did not have internet access at home. 

Teachers, the social work team, the multilingual team, and administrators have also been identifying which students have not connected with their teachers remotely and trying to find out why. 

Some of these students, despite having equipment, still cannot access their online lessons.

Carlos Gomez, director of language development, said lack of familiarity with online learning platforms is a barrier for some immigrant families because parents can’t assist their children. The Multilingual Center team and ESL teachers have been distributing printed learning packets designed for English learning to those students.

Getting students online is only one step toward the goal of maintaining a caring connection. The social work team has provided social-emotional lessons that can be completed online and guidance for teachers on trauma-sensitive approaches to remote learning. Social-emotional learning includes such things as understanding and managing emotions, setting positive goals, and maintaining positive relationships. 

Expectations for student learning have also been adjusted as students and teachers adapt to the new format. Maintaining mastery of the standards already taught is now the priority, and advancing new learning will be done when teachers determine the students are ready. 

Nalli said the next goal is to support teachers as they rapidly transition to a new way of teaching. 

“This is really, really hard,” she said. “It’s hard to change the way you do business immediately. It’s hard to have the emotional energy to show up for your students and (in) the ways that they need. It’s hard to juggle working while you’re having your own kids or parents or whoever it is, or whatever responsibilities you have at home.” 

To reduce the workload and give teachers more time to focus on connecting with students, administrators are providing standard lesson plans for each elementary grade that teachers may use instead of developing their own. They are also encouraging sharing and collaboration of lessons and learning materials among teachers through the Google Classroom platform. 

To help manage stress levels, all teachers also now have free access to the Headspace meditation and mindfulness smartphone app.  

The School Department has also set a goal to mitigate the widening achievement gap that remote learning may create for disadvantaged students. Gomez said ESL teachers, parent and community specialists, language acquisition and English Learner educational technicians have been “Herculean” in their efforts to ensure they are connecting with immigrant and English language learner students and their families. 

He said they are finding that in immigrant families, concerns about food security, job security and meeting basic needs are taking precedence over academic learning. 

To address food security issues, Botana said the schools are distributing between 500 and 1,000 meals a day, following safety protocols developed by the head nurse and reviewed by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. That compares with the 3,000 meals served when school is in session.

Botana said staff will be conducting a survey to ensure that those who need meals know how to access them, or will find out if they need the meals delivered closer to their homes. He said an extra meal is now included on Friday for students to have on the weekend. 

District social workers are also identifying homeless students and finding out if they are connecting to their classes online. 

For special education students, educators have started delivering individualized instruction through the Google Classroom and Classroom Dojo platforms, and have coordinated with teachers to make accommodations in their lessons. However, individual education plans are not being met to their full extent. 

“We realize that remote learning won’t meet the needs of all of our students,” Deborah Mullis, director of student support services, said. 

Mullis said her department is planning a more robust summer school or extended school-year services for special education students and is working on developing teletherapy plans. 

In the spirit of simplifying, the schools have also dropped efforts to capture data on student participation in the attendance-taking process and is back to recording attendance as simply present or absent.  

In light of the challenges, Superintendent Botana also told the board he has discussed the possibility of cancelling the upcoming April 20-24 recess. But he said he is not inclined to do so given everyone’s need for a break.

School budget in flux

After the superintendent proposed a $122.5 million budget for fiscal year 2021 on March 10, school officials put the budget process on hold in response to uncertainties caused by the coronavirus pandemic. 

With the economic downturn caused by the pandemic, the city has now asked the schools for a budget that would not require an increase in the property tax rate. It had previously requested a budget limited to a 3 percent tax rate increase.

Superintendent Xavier Botana said avoiding a tax increase would require a $5 million reduction to his proposed budget. 

But pausing the process has implications.

The School Department charter requires two joint meetings of the School Board and City Council or their committees within 30 days of the superintendent’s presentation of the budget. The schools are pursuing legislative action or a proclamation from the governor waiving the charter requirements, buf if that is unsuccessful and a new budget cannot be passed within the required timeline, this year’s budget of $117.4 million would remain in effect.

There are other changes, meanwhile, that could provide more school funding. The $2 trillion COVID-19 federal relief bill has support for states and schools. Botana said the Maine Department of Education has said schools could get up to an additional 80 percent of their official funding, which he estimated to be $1.5 million for Portland Public Schools, to offset costs related to COVID-19.

Miranda Fasulo, executive director of budget and finance for the schools, told the School Board a major cost is related to technology, estimated at about $75,000 for devices, plus subscriptions to communication and classroom platforms. Other expenses include tent rentals at distribution sites and printing costs for take-home lesson packets. She also noted an increase in hours worked, most notably for the family engagement efforts of multilingual staff.  

There will be some reduction in reimbursement revenue, too. Because some therapies cannot be delivered remotely, there will be fewer billable hours from occupational, physical and speech therapists, meaning less coming back in federal Medicaid reimbursements.

Fasulo estimated a shortfall of $200,000-$250,000 because federal reimbursements for school lunches would be down as fewer meals are served, while staffing costs remain the same. She said these revenue shortfalls can be absorbed by fund balances and reserves. 

Offsetting some of the costs are savings in photocopying, school supplies, and utilities while  buildings are closed. There is also reduced overtime cost in some departments such as transportation. 

“Depending on if and when we return back to school,” Fasulo said, “we could see some savings, in nothing we want to see savings in, but in field trips, athletics, transportation if these activities don’t occur as planned.” 

— Jordan Bailey

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