School board members and administrators in Portland Public Schools heard concerns from parents, teachers and community members Tuesday night regarding a proposed reopening plan to bring students back under a hybrid model.

Several teachers expressed concerns about the district’s proposal and asked the board to consider starting the year with remote learning.

Meanwhile, some parents and students criticized a “learning center” model that would keep 10th-, 11th- and 12th-grade students primarily learning remotely while other grade levels have some in-person classes. And others expressed concern about the coronavirus’ disproportionate impact on communities of color in Maine and what reopening buildings would mean for those students.

“I want to begin by stating very clearly I don’t feel safe returning to in-person instruction as a teacher and I don’t feel safe sending my children back as a parent,” said Bobby Shaddox, a social studies teacher at King Middle School. Shaddox said there are too many questions about social distancing, mask requirements and the use of bathrooms.

“I implore you, members of the board, prevent this from happening,” Shaddox said. “Do not ask teachers to become front-line public health workers. Do not ask our students to be guinea pigs.”

The board heard about an hour’s worth of feedback from the public on the district’s proposed reopening plans, which call for a hybrid model that would bring students back in-person part-time. Board members also spent several hours questioning Superintendent Xavier Botana on the proposal and hearing from administrators on how it would work.

Questions ranged from how the district will attract and retain more substitute teachers to what will happen if there’s an outbreak of the coronavirus among bus drivers and how many teachers are willing to return to the classroom.

The plan proposed by Botana would bring elementary students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade back to school for in-person learning two days per week to start the school year with hopes of bringing all elementary students back in-person five days per week by mid-October.

Middle school students would attend school in person two days per week and would be divided into cohorts based on last name to determine which days they attend.

Ninth-grade students would follow a similar schedule with in-person learning two days per week, while students in grades 10 through 12 would primarily take classes remotely but have access to in-person supports. The board is expected to vote on the plan Aug. 18.

Carrie Foster, president of the Portland Education Association, said the teachers’ union is grateful for the work that has gone into the plans. She said the union has polled members and there are “far too many concerns” about how ready schools are, personal and health issues, and the idea that schools might be putting vulnerable families at risk by reopening.

“I would suggest we spend the next few week putting our resources into planning for opening as well as we can remotely, continuing the upgrade and retrofitting of buildings, evaluate Maine’s evolving situation and monitor other districts around the country so we can learn from their successes and mistakes,” Foster said. “I know that’s difficult and it’s not to say we don’t appreciate it, but this is our advocacy at this moment.”

Sarah Obare, a 9th-grade team leader at Portland High School who has children in elementary and high school, also urged the board to consider remote learning to start the year, with the freedom for teachers to figure out ways to build relationships with students in person. She said the current plan is too difficult for teachers, who would have to juggle teaching students who are learning remotely full time with having half their class in person part of the week and the other half the rest of the week.

“Please do not consider the compromise or safe middle ground to be a hybrid model,” Obare said. “Think about, is it doable for teachers? Can teachers sustain it?”

Robert Brooks, the parent of a sophomore at Portland High School, said he has concerns about the learning center model for upperclassmen at the district’s high schools, which he called unnecessarily cautious. “What specific data points is the district waiting for to allow grades 10, 11 and 12 to return to in-person learning in any capacity?” Brooks asked.

Earlier in the meeting, board member Sarah Thompson asked how the district plans to attract more substitute teachers, after Director of Human Resources Barb Stoddard outlined plans to hire an average of two additional permanent substitutes for each school.

“We always struggle with the substitute pool,” Thompson said. “In the middle of a pandemic I imagine that would be even harder. We’re talking two per school. We couldn’t get them when we didn’t have COVID, so I’m wondering if you anticipate people signing up.”

As of Tuesday, 180, roughly 14 percent, of  the district’s 1,300 employees had requested accommodations under the American with Disabilities Act or for flexible work options.

In a survey of the staff last week, 32 percent of those who responded said they would not return to schools on site even if public health officials deemed it safe, compared with 6 percent who gave that response when surveyed in May.

The survey last week also indicated that 33 percent of staff members were not sure if they would return, 28 percent did plan to return and 7 percent planned to ask for an accommodation.

Stoddard said the district is processing the accommodation requests and it is possible that while some staff members will work remotely or take a leave of absence, others may be able to return in person with accommodations or help with child care.

She said the district also is hoping to entice new substitute teachers with different levels of pay and benefits than would normally be offered.

Botana also said that just because some respondents to the district’s survey indicated they would not plan to return on site, that doesn’t mean all would do that. “It could be people don’t want to come back, but they would come back because they would do it out of responsibility,” the superintendent said.

Botana also presented the board Tuesday with results of a survey to families that asked them to indicate whether they plan to send their children back in person or opt for the remote-only choice the district is offering regardless of the reopening scenario.

According to the results of the survey, about 11 percent of the district’s 6,600 students plan to choose remote-only and another 4 percent plan to withdraw, presumably to enroll in another district or school or to homeschool, Botana said.

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