Coronavirus crisis: School closings affect many aspects of life for Portland students

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The day after Maine’s education commissioner recommended that school districts remain closed for the rest of the school year, Portland Public School officials announced they would not reopen buildings May 4 as planned and would continue remote learning through the end of the year. 

While iconic rites of passage like prom and commencement exercises are being pulled out from under the Class of 2020, other casualties of day-to-day high school life like clubs, class trips, spring sports and lost time with friends and teachers are affecting students as they adjust to permanent remote learning.

Mena Eltahir said Deering High School’s Black Student Union had planned to hold a cultural ball for the end of March and was starting to plan a spring Afro Fest. 

“Then all these had to get canceled immediately,” she said. “It was a big shock because a lot of people were looking forward to it.” 

Balqies Mohamed, a Deering sophomore and member of the Muslim Student Association, said fundraising had just begun when schools closed, which was a setback for the newly formed club. 

Christal Ndaye said that at Casco Bay High School, her class’s Junior Journey, an annual week-long cross-cultural service and adventure trip had to be canceled, too. 

Although students had mixed feelings about the transition to remote learning, most said they appreciated the district’s efforts to ensure they had a way to connect. 

Superintendent Xavier Botana said at a School Board meeting on April 7 that in the elementary schools only a very few students have not been in contact with their teachers, and that 90 percent of students are completing a significant portion of their assignments. In the high schools, he said, at least 80 percent of students are connecting with their teachers and completing at least some of the work. 

Eltahir said at first she felt like there was an overload of work but the schedule has been adjusted so students have more time to themselves to complete assignments. 

“It felt a bit weird to be teaching yourself instead of having someone teach you,” she said, although her teachers are available for questions. “Some of them even host Zoom call games for classes, just so that we get to see each other once a week.” 

Mohamed said she, too, likes the new flexibility to work at her own pace.

Portland High School senior Cassera Abeasi says her sleep schedule is “just gone” because without being in school she has too much energy left at the end of the day. (Contributed)

“I only really have to check in for attendance and then get the work done by midnight or by whenever it’s due, so I can move at my own place and go in as much depth as I want to,” she said. “It’s up to my discretion of when I want to go deep or when I want to just take notes and then move on to the next thing.” 

Nzeyimana said that being among one’s friends and support system at school plays a major role in motivating students, and that the school environment also makes it easier to be disciplined about getting work done. There are free periods to do schoolwork, but at home there are distractions and responsibilities. 

“At home, I’m going to wake up at (6 a.m.) and I’m probably going to take care of my brothers, or I’m going to have to do some chores before I do any work,” he said.  

Ndaye has found the transition difficult. She pulls all-nighters keeping up with the homework and said that working so hard has turned her home – once a place of comfort – into a place where she is stressed, so she now feels that being home is tiring. 

Most agreed that learning from home has not improved their sleep. 

Eltahir said going to school kept her sleep schedule regular, but now it is “all over the place.” Portland High School senior Cassera Abeasi said her sleep schedule is “just gone.” 

“I have been going to sleep at 2, 3, 4 o’clock in the morning, and then having to wake up for classes at 8 or 9,” Abeasi said. She attributed this to not using much energy during the day. 

Mohamed said she is programmed to get up at the same time she would for school, but ends up taking a nap in the middle of the day, and questioned whether that’s healthy. School kept her active during the day, she said. 

For Portland High School senior Apiyo Charles, email replaces an in-person college visit. (Contributed)

School closures and COVID-19 restrictions are disrupting college admission and acceptance processes, too. 

The state Department of Education announced it received a waiver exempting it from its assessment requirements, so it would not be conducting SATs for high school juniors. The University of Maine system, Maine private colleges and institutions across the country have also dropped requirements for SATs.

Juniors and seniors would also often be using this time to visit schools; either those where they would like to apply or those they have been accepted to.

Ndaye was planning to visit a Webster University in Europe over spring break, but will instead be scheduling a 3 a.m. online visit with the school – which will also disrupt her sleep, she said. 

And accepted-student days at colleges are being canceled as COVID-19 restrictions continue.

Portland High School senior Apiyo Charles said she was looking forward to going to Thomas College’s admitted student day and touring the campus. She was disappointed that instead of informational sessions, she has only an email address to write to with questions. 

Abeasi was accepted at Morgan State University in Maryland, which also moved its accepted student day from in-person to online.

“Being able to meet the new people of my class is kind of getting stripped away from me,” she said. 

Nzeyimana was accepted to Bowdoin College in Brunswick and said its accepted student day has been replaced with a series of webinars.

“I believe a lot of people have been looking forward to those days, especially seniors. It’s the last year. They’ve been looking to this moment for a really long time,” he said, “so the word to describe how I feel would be very sad, but also essential. It’s essential for the community in the current situation.”

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