Schools ease pandemic restrictions in advance of opening

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Students are set to return to Portland schools in a couple of weeks, where they will find the restrictions on COVID-19 protocols much more flexible after two and a half  years of pandemic-driven challenges.  And school officials have a long list of work to get done this year.

Confusion and lack of clarity stifled schools in the heart of the pandemic, but the most major concerns have lessened for the time being – evident in many of the lifted restrictions in classrooms ahead of the Sept. 6 start date.

Portland Public Schools logoAcknowledging that there is a lot of work to be done, Board Chair Emily Figdor is “incredibly optimistic,” for this year in particular: “After two and a half years of school in Covid we are finally going to get to a much more normal school year,” she said.

New school guidelines were announced by the CDC on Aug. 11, and the Maine Department of Education was expected to issue state guidelines later in the week. Superintendent Xavier Botana said the district plans to work on its own regulations in the coming weeks, and added that there are very few restrictions in general, meaning the focus will be primarily on keeping students in school whenever possible.

The CDC’s new recommendations remove the need to quarantine when an individual is exposed to a positive case and dictates that students and faculty should mask in nurses’ offices or when they are exposed or showing symptoms.

This year’s “normal” for PPS comes in the context of many changes on the horizon for the district, including the search for a new superintendent;  proposed changes to the longstanding policy of high school selection; and addressing the in-school conflicts that led to protests at Lyman Moore and Lincoln middle schools back in May.

Ahead of what he recently announced would be his last year in the position, Botana outlined some goals regarding priorities for the 2022-23 school year at the School Board meeting on Aug. 16.

“I was looking for a place where I could make my accountabilities visible to the broader community,” he said.

The board has begun workshopping a plan for the impending superintendent search, and did a first-read on a “request for proposals,” to secure a search firm that would identify a pool of candidates.

Past superintendent searches cost PPS $46,000 and $33,500 in 2012 and 2016, respectively. Botana said the money for the search would likely come out of the board’s contingency funding, and due to inflation, the search may be more expensive this year.

He said the district should have plenty of time to conduct it as well, as there is a similar timeline to those past examples: “In every one of these cases, there was similar notice to what you have now with my departure,” Botana said.

PPS is seeking a search firm that has experience in hiring with diverse populations and understands the district’s commitment to equity.

In addition to the search firm, Botana and the board hope to involve the community by cultivating a local group to work alongside board members. The committee would include seven community members, chosen by the ad-hoc Appointments Committee, and five board members appointed by Chair Figdor.

Both parts of the process, the search firm and the committee, are expected  to merge around the second week of October, at which point Botana would step back and allow the search committee to take control of the process.

Among other priorities laid out at the recent meeting is a consideration to adjust school starting and ending times, work that was first discussed back in 2020. Botana said that a proposal would be brought forth to the board in the fall to explain how that might be done – particularly to ensure that elementary schools no longer start at 7:30.

At its next meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 6, the board is scheduled to take action on the superintendent search plan and proposed changes to the high school enrollment process. The next meeting also marks an opportunity for the public to engage with the board about proposed changes.

The PPS policy committee was expected to meet on Tuesday, Aug. 23, and further discuss the district’s discipline policies after data showed failure to fully adhere to suspension policies at the school level last year.