Two weeks after school board members approved a plan for remote learning, the Portland district is continuing to make adjustments and evaluate plans for keeping students engaged while schools are shut because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Portland Superintendent Xavier Botana told school board members Tuesday that remote learning plans continue to be refined.

During a school board meeting Tuesday night via Zoom, Superintendent Xavier Botana said the board is continuing to revise and refine its remote learning plan.

Portland schools are currently closed through April 27 because of the virus. But that will be updated now that Gov. Janet Mills has issued an executive order calling for  a halt to classroom instruction statewide through at least May 1.

While the district has fielded questions and concerns about things like grading, attendance and work load, Botana said, there has also been a great deal of collaboration among and initiative taken by staff.

Food service employees have been preparing and distributing school meals while custodians have been cleaning and disinfecting schools. Teachers have been tapping into their creativity to stay connected with students. Multilingual and multicultural staff have been reaching out to English language learners and vulnerable students.

“We’re aware of questions around attendance, grading and the work load both for families and students as well as staff,” Botana said. “We continue to listen and come up with collaborative, data-driven decisions.”

Over the last two weeks, the district has been working to connect students with school meals, technology and internet service.

More than 1,000 digital devices have been distributed so far to elementary school students, while students in grades 7 through 12 already have one-to-one devices as part of their regular school program. About 400 hot spots for internet access have been distributed.

The district does not currently have data on students who have not been connecting to online learning, but it is  being worked on, said Assistant Superintendent Melea Nalli.

Nalli said the district has been getting questions concerning whether teachers will advance new material or focus on maintaining skills students already have, and that the district is letting teachers use their professional judgement to decide pacing, and is in conversations about grading.

“We are actively working on clarifications to what that might look like and what about the remote learning context might lead us to make different choices about how we do grading,” she said.

Botana said the district has been serving 500 to 1,000 meals each day at nine distribution sites. The district is also planning to survey families this week about food access to see if they are aware of the meal-distribution plan, whether they are struggling to utilize it and if the district should explore other options, such as trying to deliver meals.

The coronavirus-driven school closures are currently estimated to cost the district roughly an additional $120,000, including $75,000 in technology, $15,000 for tents for food distribution, $15,000 to print take-home packets and for other supplies, and $15,000 in overtime, the district’s executive director for budget and finance, Miranda Fasulo told the board Tuesday.

Other costs – including paid leave for employees who are sick or have to care for sick family, to staff food distribution over April break and to schedule enhanced summer programming – are to be determined, Fasulo said.

Potential savings are harder to pinpoint, but Fasulo said she does expect to see some savings that would offset the added expenses, including a reduction in overtime in areas like facilities and transportation, and utilities savings from buildings being shut down.

“At this point I do feel fairly comfortable that overall we will be able to offset many if not most of the costs with small savings across broader categories, but I will keep everyone updated,” she said.

The district is also considering revenue impacts including the potential of Medicaid reimbursement shortfalls for speech and behavior therapies that will be reduced or can’t be delivered remotely, and loss of revenue from fewer meals being served and students not paying for them.

Botana said the district’s finance committee asked last week that the budget process be put on hold for the time being while the district seeks flexibility with the city charter and from the state around the budget timeline.

The transition to remote learning has been difficult, said student members of the school board, but they said their teachers and principals have been supportive.

“Online learning has been a difficult transition and many students have concerns, but it has been made easier by support of the PHS staff,” said Stephanie Brown, the Portland High School student representative.

“The school work has been pretty manageable and we’re definitely getting the support we need from teachers through emailing back and forth or posting comments on Google classroom,” said Sahar Habibzai, the Deering High School representative. “You usually get a response by email within 15 minutes so it’s been very supportive in my experience so far.”






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