Portland High School junior Eli Podolsky said he does not have confidence in Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana or the School Board providing an in-person learning plan in time to cause “meaningful change” before the school year ends. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
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Dozens of Portland’s high school students and their parents are pushing for the district to allow sophomores, juniors, and seniors to return to in-person learning as soon as possible.

Back to School Portland, a grassroots group organized less than two weeks ago by 35 parents of city high-schoolers, says Superintendent Xavier Botana’s plan to increase in-person learning for upperclassmen by approximately two hours per week is not sufficient.

Assistant Superintendent Aaron Townsend, at the School Board’s Feb. 23 meeting, presented the School Department’s plan to add two 40-minute in-person learning periods for sophomores, juniors, and seniors twice a week.

A Feb. 21 press release from Back to School Portland said the plan left many parents with more questions than answers and offers no timeline for a return to the classroom.

Portland High School students Eli Podolsky, left, George Theall, and Luc Dietlin are among the Portland High School 10th-, 11th-, and 12-graders who have not had any in-person classes this year. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Tenth-, 11th- and 12th-graders are the only students who have been required to learn entirely remotely since the coronavirus pandemic closed local schools last March. Back to School Portland is calling for a hybrid model with at least two days of in-person high school instruction.

The Back to School Portland Facebook group, which was formed Feb. 16, had more than 330 members as of Feb. 28.

Last week’s board meeting lasted more than six hours because dozens of students and parents addressed the issue during two public comment periods. An overwhelming majority spoke in support of students returning to in-person learning.

Back to School Portland’s recent press release claims Portland high-schoolers have less than half of their normal schedule during remote learning, with only 2.7 hours of instruction time, four days a week. It also states that students from disadvantaged families and underrepresented communities suffer the most harm from all-remote learning.

“There is a growing national consensus that in-person schooling is essential to children’s and teens’ educational achievement, mental health, and overall well-being,” the group said.

Students and parents who support sophomores, juniors, and seniors continuing to learn remotely were expected to speak at the board’s March 2 meeting, although the board had no discussion planned on the topic, according to its meeting agenda. Botana, however, was scheduled to provide an update on school reopening plans as he does at every School Board meeting.

Beth Eilers, one of the founding parents of Back to School Portland and the mother of Eli Podolsky, a junior at Portland High School, said Feb. 25 she feels the issue has taken on an “us-versus-them” tone, with the parents against school staff and the School Board.

Eilers said she feels Botana and some Board members treated parents like “annoying adversaries” for speaking up at the Feb. 23 meeting.

“That us-versus-them, to me, is horrible,” she said. “It’s like, ‘OK, if you’re pro getting kids back to school then you’re anti-teacher safety.’ That’s 100 percent not true.”

The plan

Botana at last week’s meeting said there are several reasons the department is planning to give students more in-person class time, including an increase in “chronically absent” students this year compared to 2020.

Chronic absences among Portland’s African American students nearly doubled in January compared to a year ago, which was the most significant increase, according to School Department data. Absences among Hispanic students increased 13 percent; among students who identify as being two or more races the increase was 14 percent.

Data on only the city’s high school students showed a less drastic increase, which Botana on Feb. 23 said may be attributed to the fact that attendance in city high schools was “already problematic.”

Conversely, in both groups, attendance among Native American students improved this year compared to 2020.

The proposed plan for Portland, Casco Bay, and Deering high schools vary slightly based on schedules used at the schools. Botana said the department evaluated synchronous learning time in surrounding districts to create Portland’s plan.

The proposal includes adding two 40-minute in-person learning periods to the schedule in addition to the two existing Learning Center periods high school upperclassmen have in their schedule.

Botana noted public health guidelines, small classroom sizes, the department’s Remote Academy structure, and several staff members requiring remote accommodations as hurdles to bringing students back for more in-person instruction. He also said the risk for virus transmission is higher in high schools and pointed to national data showing most students nationwide are still learning remotely.

After listening to parent feedback, he said, the next steps for implementing the plan are speaking with student focus groups, vetting options for more COVID-19 testing, and meeting with building leadership teams at each high school.

Botana did not respond to a subsequent request for additional comment and information.

Student, parent response

Portland High School junior Eli Podolosky said last week he does not have confidence in Botana or the School Board providing an in-person learning plan in time to cause “meaningful change” before the end of the school year.

The remote format, he said after last week’s board meeting, has had a profound impact on him and he feels like he missed a year of academic, social, and emotional development. 

“I think what a lot of people are missing is this isn’t school, but at home. This is like sitting in front of a computer three hours a day and trying to focus,” he said. “It’s a complete shift in our mode of socialization, of education; it’s not just school with more computers, it’s a completely separate way of going throughout your day.”

In the first months of the pandemic, Podolosky added, he spent most of his time on social media, which he realized was “very bad” for him. He has since taken up playing guitar and rock climbing, but said he knows not every student has access to those diversions, which make remote learning more tolerable for him.

Mental health, he said, is the most important issue for his generation, and he said remote learning has affected many students negatively. He said learning at home provides a “stagnant” environment for those who are struggling with mental health, while school was a “dynamic environment” that allowed students to shift “(their) mode of thinking and feeling.”

Several parents echoed that sentiment at the Feb. 23 meeting. They questioned why Portland upperclassmen have still not resumed in-person learning while Cumberland County has been designated “green” for much of the pandemic. 

Portland High School teacher Olivia Bean, however, advocated for the opposite position and said she was “frustrated” that parents had “so many opinions.”

“The plan came up because people who work in the building every day and students who go into the building every day have much, much, much more input that matters than the parents,” she said. “You don’t go in the school. Who knows what your kid is thinking? They don’t tell you everything.”

Luc Dietlin, in front of Portland High School, says the School Department has left him and other students “in the dark.” (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Portland High School Junior Luc Dietlin, last weekend said while he is doing “fine” during remote learning, he would “be doing better” if he were going back to school.

“I also know that a ton of kids are struggling, and that is one of the major problems: depression, and a lot of kids are not doing too well in school,” Dietlin said. “I think that’s the root of our problem – that it’s not working for literally everyone, and there are so many things that could be done, but they’re not being done.”

Learning Center time, he added, which is the only time upperclassmen are in school in-person, is for “tests and labs,” not “for extra learning.”

Dietlin also said students and parents have been trying to get administrators to make a plan for upperclassmen for months and keep them informed, but they have not given them any information.

“We’ve been sitting here in the dark,” he said.

Lauren Dietlin, Luc’s mother, said there “seems to be a lack of transparency and communication” between administrators and parents.

Eilers, Podolosky’s mother, said her other child is a student at King Middle School, which offers students a hybrid schedule. While the school year there has “not been perfect,” she said, her younger son looks forward to school twice a week. She said the hybrid schedule has been a “lifesaver” for him and has helped him remain positive.

Eilers added her family has had to pay for a private math tutor for Eli, who is taking several Advanced Placement classes this semester. She said many students are falling behind in the current format.

Eilers also noted Portland’s public schools are conducting some in-person sports, such as basketball, but not in-person learning.

She said while she thinks parents were “hard on Botana” at last week’s meeting, she feels it was the first time in months he had really listened to them.

Eilers said she supports many other parts of the superintendent’s agenda, such as last summer’s decision to remove school resource officers from city high schools, and she supports getting teachers vaccinated.

Nonetheless, she said, there is still a way for teachers to do their jobs in person safely right now.

Many parents look at public school teachers as partners in keeping their children safe and educating them, Eilers said, and because Gov. Janet Mills has not put teachers in an “essential” category for vaccinations and made teacher safety a priority, parents no longer have them as partners.

Lauren Dietlin agreed.

“I’m 50, I’m going to get a vaccine before the teachers,” she said. “I would willingly give up my vaccine for a teacher to be able to go back to school.”

Eilers added that the idea that Portland is “somehow special” compared to other Maine cities and towns that have implemented in-person learning at the high school level is not true.

Lewiston, she said, is “just as diverse in language and culture as Portland,” with many old school buildings. Students in all grades there are attending school on a hybrid schedule, with two in-person days per week.

Eilers acknowledged that 80 additional minutes of in-person time is better than no class time for Portland high school students, but criticized the ambiguous timeline for its rollout.

“If I came to work with a plan that had no implementation date and I was supposed to be working on it for the last year, and no plan for when I would have a yes or no answer,” she said, “I think I would face trouble at work.”

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