Portland High School in March. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The Portland Board of Public Education will consider school-reopening scenarios next week, all of which come with a remote learning option for families who don’t want their children to return to classrooms this fall.

The scenarios align with the Maine Department of Education’s plan to release color-coded advisories at the end of the week to guide districts as they confront the need to educate students while preventing the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus.

Under a “green” scenario all Portland students would return to school full-time with health and safety protocols including mask wearing, physical distancing and daily symptom checks. A “yellow” scenario would be a hybrid of remote and in-person learning, and a “red” scenario would constitute full remote learning except for some special education students.

School board chairman Roberto Rodriguez said he’s been hearing questions and concerns from parents, teachers and students. The board will take public comments on the plans at its Aug. 4 meeting. A decision on which scenario to adopt is expected Aug. 18.

“There’s been a mix of questions asking for clarification, not just on the details of the plan but also the timeline of the process,” Rodriguez said. “There are some concerns obviously from parents who don’t feel we’ve gotten control of the COVID cases, and they worry opening schools would create an outbreak.

“There are other questions and concerns more specific to the academic concerns, like how much remote learning could negatively impact the quality of education. The feedback we’ve had so far has been pretty broad.”

According to a letter from Superintendent Xavier Botana dated Friday, the district is asking parents to respond to a survey this week asking whether they plan to send their children back in person under a yellow or green scenario or would rather opt out and continue remote learning. That option would be available to families under all three options, pending board approval.

In an email Monday, Botana said if families choose the remote option, they will be asked to stay in that format for a trimester in order to help the district determine staffing. If in-person learning is available at the elementary and middle school levels, Botana said, he does not foresee teachers conducting in-person classes being able to also teach students remotely.

The state system, which will be updated biweekly, will color-code counties based on a variety of metrics including data on COVID-19 cases and positivity rates and whether it is advisable to resume in-person instruction. Districts have the final say on whether they choose to follow the state’s recommendation.

“There are so many details of either of those plans – the red or yellow – that we don’t fully understand yet, and a lot of that work is still taking place,” Rodriguez said. “What I can say is the board is really interested in hearing after Aug. 4 the reaction from the community and then whatever we decide on hopefully we will take that feedback into consideration.”

The district is also working with about 30 community partners on further developing the hybrid scenario, including providing options for parents on days when their children might not be in school, he said.

The hybrid scenario detailed in Friday’s letter calls for limits on the time and number of students attending school in person and differs by grade level.

For students in prekindergarten through 5th grade, the district is looking at either sending students in person two days per week or, under a different scenario, allowing all pre-K-through-5 students to return in person.

For students in grades 6 through 8 the hybrid scenario would mean being at school two days per week and learning remotely the other three days.

For students in grades 9 through 12 the district is looking at a hybrid scenario where all 9th graders attend in person two days per week and learn remotely three days, and all 10th- through 12th-graders learn remotely but have access to in-person supports.

The plans detailed in Friday’s letter could change based on feedback the district receives this week, Botana said. The district hasn’t yet determined which students would return on which days in a hybrid scenario, but it would likely involve alphabetical groupings with whatever modifications would be needed to get families on the same schedule to the extent possible.

“It is possible that as the year progresses we may need to close some in-person learning settings if someone tests positive,” Botana said. “What I would want to urge everyone to understand is that there is no playbook and that we are making the best decisions that we can with the information in front of us and that information will likely change over time.”

Pious Ali, a youth and community engagement specialist with Portland Empowered, a group that works to incorporate student and parent voices into Portland school policies and practices, said they have heard from parents concerned about how they will balance work and school schedules under a hybrid model. He said students are also hoping to see racial justice at the forefront of all decisions in the coming school year.

The group is one of several working to collect feedback from families this week. “We appreciate Portland Public Schools engaging us,” Ali said. “They’ve been very responsive since school was shut.”

Rodriguez said the board is exploring whether members will be able to meet in person or have that option for next week’s meeting, though he said public participation in the meeting will remain virtual.

“If our last few public hearings are any indication, we will see a significant number of people who want to chime in,” Rodriguez said. “My sense is that having a virtual public hearing will allow more people to participate, so that seems to be the right direction to move in.”

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