Portland Public Schools Superintendent Xavier Botana is recommending that the district adopt a hybrid model for the return to school and push the start of classes for students back two weeks to Sept. 14.

The plan, to be presented to the Portland Board of Public Education on Tuesday, calls for elementary school students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade to return in person two days per week for the start of the school year with hopes of bringing all elementary students back to five days per week by the middle of October, provided that safety guidelines can be met.

Portland Superintendent Xavier Botana File photo by Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The board will have a first reading and take public comment on the proposal during an online meeting Tuesday. A vote is expected Aug. 18.

The proposal comes as districts around the state weigh how to reopen this fall. On Friday, the Maine Department of Education recommended districts in every county could reopen for in-person instruction with safety requirements, though state officials said they also anticipated some districts would choose hybrid models.

In Portland, middle school students and high school freshmen would have in-person learning two days per week, while students in grades 10 through 12 would follow a “learning center model,” primarily taking classes remotely with access to in-person or virtual office hours and support, according to a draft of the reopening plan.

In a news release Monday evening, Botana said he envisions the hybrid model staying in place through the end of the first trimester, at which point it could be reconsidered, with the options ranging from a return to in-person learning to a move to all remote learning if the virus surges and the state’s color-coded advisory system changes.

Postponing the first day of school by two weeks would allow teachers and staff to prepare for all the safety precautions that must be in place to allow students to return, the district said.

Students in elementary and middle school and ninth-graders would be divided into two groups based on last name. Group A would attend school in-person Monday and Thursday and learn remotely Tuesday and Friday while Group B would do the opposite. Wednesdays would be reserved for targeted student outreach and teacher planning with no new lessons or assignments given.

The plan contains an exception for the Cliff Island and Peaks Island schools, which would go directly to in-person learning five days per week on Sept. 14.

All high school students would have a 6.5-hour school day with the in-person portion for ninth-grade students being three hours and the rest of the school day done remotely. Elementary and middle school students would have a five-hour school day to allow teachers time to check in with remote learning students.

The district also plans to offer all students across the district the option to choose remote-only education. The district has surveyed parents to ask whether they would send their children back in-person under in-person or hybrid scenarios, but results of the survey, which closed Sunday, were not available Monday.

About 150 teachers and staff, or about 12 percent of the district’s 1,300 employees, have requested accommodations to work remotely and the district is still receiving the requests.

School board member Tim Atkinson said Monday that he is feeling good about the district’s progress in planning, but was not yet ready to say if the board would follow Botana’s recommendation.

“Whether we will be able to open safely at the time when we usually have school starting in September, I think there’s still a few weeks between now and then, and the COVID situation is evolving,” Atkinson said. “I think we need to follow the data. I’m happy to have a couple more weeks before we approve this plan to hear from folks and follow the progress of dealing with the virus.”

He said that while communication from administrators has been good, planning has been difficult and the district also must try to accommodate a range of opinions on reopening.

“It’s very polarizing,” Atkinson said. “I think there are a lot of people who want to be super-cautious and not take risks. I certainly understand that completely. Then there are other folks (who feel that) all of us really need to get back to life as normal. Certainly some people are more acutely aware of that and feeling the affects of this pandemic more acutely. We have to look at what’s safe.”

Sarah Thompson, another school board member, said Monday that she has several questions she plans to ask at Tuesday’s meeting, including whether there will be enough substitute teachers, how transportation routes will work, how many families might want to do remote-only and how the high school plans will impact students at the Portland Arts and Technology High School, a career and technical school where students mostly work in a hands-on environment and come from more than 20 districts in the area.

According to Monday’s release, students at PATHS would learn in-person two days per week and remotely the rest of the week.

“We’re going to obviously have to make a decision, but I’m not sure what the right answer is for any of it,” Thompson said.

The district is planning to ask parents whenever possible to provide transportation for their student to and from school, as bus capacity will be significantly reduced to allow for social distancing.

A limited number of students will be scheduled per bus and students will be required to sit one per seat. Bus routes, stops and time information will be communicated digitally at least one week in advance of school reopening, according to the proposed reopening plans.

The plans also call for students in grades kindergarten through eight to be served pre-packaged meals in their classrooms, while high schools will serve breakfast in school and make lunch available to take home. For students learning remotely, lunch and breakfast will be available for pickup at distribution sites.

 

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