Stacked chairs are seen through a window at King Middle School on Thursday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Members of the Portland Board of Public Education are weighing competing concerns about the return to school following a public hearing Tuesday.

Several of the board’s nine members said they appreciate the work district administrators have put into the plan for the fall, which now calls for students to return in a hybrid scenario where most would attend in-person classes a few days per week.

But board members also said they sympathize with teachers who don’t feel safe returning, and are looking for ways to address the concerns raised by teachers and community members this week.

“I think we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place,” said board member Emily Figdor. “We know the harms from keeping children and adolescents at home from an educational perspective and the perspective of their overall development, but there’s no way to eliminate the risk of COVID. It feels like an impossible situation.”

Figdor said she strongly supports the plan Superintendent Xavier Botana presented this week, but expects the board and district will continue to refine it. Other board members said they are waiting to make a final decision knowing the situation might change in the next two weeks. The board is expected to vote on the plan Aug. 18.

Board Chair Roberto Rodriguez said the two issues that struck him during Tuesday’s meeting were the number of teachers who don’t feel safe returning to buildings and concerns about how COVID is disproportionately impacting minority communities in Maine.

“That obviously is a big concern given such a high percentage of our student population comes from families that are minorities and that are overly represented in coronavirus cases,” Rodriguez said.

African Americans make up less than 2 percent of Maine’s population but more than 24 percent of the state’s coronavirus cases. About 29 percent of students in Portland Public Schools are Black.

An empty hallway at Portland High School, seen Thursday. The superintendent’s plan for reopening would have 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders taking classes remotely.  Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Maine is continuing to fare well when compared to numbers of cases in other states. Only Vermont and Hawaii have had fewer cases per 100,000 people, according to the New York Times COVID tracking project.

Rodriguez said the data and work by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Maine Department of Education and the governor’s office indicate the state is in good position to consider reopening school buildings.

“Given we have done so well it’s difficult for me to understand what else needs to be done or what else needs to be in place for teachers to feel safe,” he said. “That is not to say their sentiments are not justified, just the opposite, they’re very real. I think that’s part of what needs to happen in the next week (is to get) a better understanding from them on what they picture or need to be in place. I just really don’t have an answer.”

Figdor said it also will be difficult to try and address competing concerns from the community and find a balance, for example, between teachers who don’t feel safe returning in-person and high school students who want more in-person classes. “Those concerns are inconsistent, so it makes our job even more challenging,” Figdor said.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Figdor said she would like to see further exploration of the use of outdoor classrooms, which the district is already working on with community partners to the extent possible.

Board member Adam Burk said in an interview he also would like to see outdoor space at the forefront of the district’s planning, knowing the transmission risks of COVID-19 have been documented to be lower outdoors.

A year like no other, 2020 is painted on a cafeteria wall at Portland High School, seen through a window Thursday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

With regard to teacher concerns, Burk said there are a variety of things that have come up, including access to the right personal protective equipment, questions on what school policies and enforcement will look like, and concerns about the overall climate. Families also have presented a range of concerns.

“I think it’s just the reality that different folks need different things and have different circumstances,” Burk said. “People were commenting to their circumstances. I think we heard different context whether it was ages, grade levels or other circumstances, and I think personally I appreciate all that complexity and how much had been addressed thus far in the plan.”

He said he will continue to monitor health and safety data while trying to answer questions about the details of the plan. “If teachers aren’t comfortable with the plan, there’s a whole host of problems,” Burk said. “Even if the plan is a good one, if people are in a fight or flight response because they’re scared, how can they do their work in a way they feel they’re doing it well? That all needs to be addressed.”

Board members also said they are thinking about how to address some of the grade-level concerns from parents and students. Some at Tuesday’s meeting said they were unhappy with high school freshmen being brought back for in-person classes two days per week while upperclassmen will primarily take classes remotely with access to in-person support.

“I’m having a hard time understanding why ninth-graders are going back and (Portland Arts and Technology High School) students are going back, but 10 through 12 high schoolers are not going back,” said board member Sarah Thompson. “I’m trying to figure that one out.”

Thompson also questioned whether the district is being too ambitious with its plan to bring elementary school students back for two days per week to start and hopefully five days per week by mid-October.

Empty desks are seen through a window of a classroom at King Middle School on Thursday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“For the younger kids, the pre-K and K, it’s a time of their life where it’s very nurturing for them to be in school,” she said. “They’re coming away from their moms and dads and coming into a schooling experience. The expectation for students that age to keep masks on and to also not be embraced by their teachers – the teachers of course are going to do that and be there for those kids.”

In addition to teachers, Thompson also worries about bus schedules and whether the district will be able to maintain enough healthy drivers.

“We’ll continue to look and see what the statistics are showing for Cumberland County and keep revisiting and evaluating until it’s time to make a final decision,” Thompson said. “Even two weeks away is a long ways away.”

Board members Anna Trevorrow, Mark Balfantz and Marnie Morrione did not respond to requests for comment. Tim Atkinson said by email Wednesday that he was still digesting the information presented at Tuesday’s meeting and did not respond to a request for further comment. Micky Bondo responded but said she was busy preparing for her son’s high school graduation Thursday.

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