PORTLAND — The Portland Schools’ School Planning Design team is expected to finalize a recommendation this week on what instruction will look like when the 2020-21 school year begins Aug. 31.

The team has been has working for weeks on a plan to present to the Board of Education, which will act on the recommendation in early August. The plan is based on feedback from staff, students and families, and also on collaboration with regional and state school leaders.

“I feel very confident in the end we will have a very solid plan that feels like we have done our due diligence in looking at feedback and examining our options,” Lincoln Middle School Principal Suellyn Santiago, a member of the design team, said at a Board of Education meeting earlier this month.

Scenarios the group is looking into include schools operating at full capacity if it is healthy to do so; schools open but with physical distancing, alternative scheduling and smaller class sizes; continued district-wide remote learning; or a combination of the three.

Even if school is reopened at full capacity, Santiago said “it would not be a return to normal as we left in in March.”

Assistant Superintendent Aaron Townsend said the 2020-2021 school year may see a combination of all three options.

“Next year may require us to shift and transition from one mode of schooling to another, be it for a short period of time or a longer portion of time like we experienced this spring,” he said.

Design team member Fiona Harper, a longtime teacher in the district, said making sure students and staff are safe in the schools is one of the biggest factors in coming up with the plan, as are maintaining personal connections and quality education and ensuring achievement gaps and opportunity gaps don’t increase.

“We know asking students to come back to school is really asking them to risk their health or their family’s health,” she said. “That puts a different kind of pressure on a school.”

Portland Schools will have a number of new protocols in place when, and if, school resumes in person. These protocols include requiring staff and students to wash their hands and the staff to wear face coverings; intensive cleaning, disinfecting and ventilation in school buildings; social distancing practices; flexible sick leave for staff; health and symptom monitoring; staff training; and more frequent use of outdoor space more for recreational opportunities and learning.

The Maine Department of Education last week announced a set of guidelines to help local school districts implement a plan for reopening.

When it is safe for schools to return to classroom-based instruction, the department said in a June 11 press release, will be determined in consultation with the Maine Emergency Management Association and Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. That time will be decided based on several factors, including the downward trend of coronavirus cases and hospitals’ ability to treat them; the ability of school districts to implement disinfecting practices, social distancing and requiring hand washing; and the feasibility of having schools monitor, check and treat symptoms if someone tests positive for COVID-19.

The Maine Department of Education will not select a specific date for individual schools to reopen, but is working with school districts to figure out when it makes sense for them to resume in-person instruction, said spokesperson Kelli Deveaux.

“While the DOE will be advising, it really will be a collaborative process involving health and school officials,” she said.

With the department’s guidance, local school districts will determine their maximum class size, how classrooms will be set up for social distancing and the hygiene protocols they will have in place.

“Although we have worked on this for over two months, it will remain in ‘draft’ form due to the unpredictable and constantly evolving nature of the COVID-19 situation,” Commissioner of Education Pender Makin said. “We will be responsive to changing conditions and recommendations from medical science and our team will consider received feedback to make improvements.”

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