An empty hallway at Portland High School, seen last week. The superintendent’s plan for reopening would have 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders taking classes remotely. Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald

PORTLAND — Although the Maine Center for Disease Control has given students in Cumberland County the go-ahead to return to school, some parents are wary about sending their kids back into the classroom. One group of parents is advocating for an outdoor learning scenario.

Andy Schmidt said he will consider the risk factors and his family’s needs before deciding on in-person or remote learning for his two children, who will be a kindergartner and a fourth grader at Longfellow School.

“The Maine CDC and the school system will not determine that school is entirely safe,” Schmidt said. “They will figure out the amount of community spread and put in place reasonable safety measures, and they will weigh that against the educational and emotional needs of the kids.”

“I will take all of that into consideration, but I will also look at my own family’s needs and our duty to not harm our teachers,” he said.

Peter Weed, father of a sophomore at Portland High School and eighth grader at King Middle School, is looking closely at data to inform his decision about where his daughters will be learning this fall.

“It is going to depend on numbers, the way trends are going and recommendations,” he said. “We haven’t quite decided yet.”

Superintendent Xavier Botana is recommending a hybrid model that uses in-person and remote instruction. The district hopes to transition its more than 3,000 pre-kindergarten and elementary school students to full-time, in-person instruction by Oct. 13.

In the meantime, beginning on the first day of school Sept. 14, K-5 students would be instructed in-person two days a week and remotely three days a week.

Middle school students would go to their classrooms two days a week and have remote instruction three days a week through the first trimester, which ends in November. At the high schools, freshmen would learn remotely three days a week and at home two days a week. Sophomores, juniors and seniors would get all instruction remotely, but could access in-person support up to four days a week.

A final decision on the proposal is expected at the Aug. 18 Portland Board of Education meeting.

Maine Health’s chief health improvement officer, Dr. Dora Mills, said the first thing parents need to look at in determining the right choice for their children is the level of virus transmission in their county.

On July 31, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention listed Cumberland County in the green category, meaning it has a relatively low risk of virus spread and schools may consider in-person instruction. As of July 29, Portland had seen 811 cases of the coronavirus, approximately 40% of the cases in Cumberland County.

Other factors to take into account, Mills said, are any underlying health issues in the family, such as diabetes, asthma or immune-compromised disease, and a parent’s ability to work from home and monitor remote instruction.

“Each family has to look at their individual situation. Many families rely on schools not only for academics, but for healthy meals, exercise, structure and socialization,” she said.

Parents of students who are returning to classrooms in person should make sure the children are used to wearing a mask, regularly wash their hands, are up to date on all immunizations and get the flu shot when it is available.

“All that is important because that is going to also help the health of teachers and others who work with our children,” Mills said.

Those parents not comfortable with sending their children to school can opt for fully remote learning under Botana’s plan. According to a recent survey of parents, as many as 271, or 4% of the district’s 6,600 students, may not be returning to Portland schools this fall and parents of more than 750 students, 11% of the total student body, favor all-remote learning.

But Emily Chaleff plans to have her two children, a first grader and fourth grader at Ocean Avenue Elementary School, in school as much as allowed.

“I feel like the district is trying its best to accommodate everyone’s needs as disparate as they are. For us, online learning was a big challenge and with the numbers where they are in Maine and the work of the school district and (Department of Education), that mitigates the risks enough that we felt the benefit we get in-person was the right choice for our kids,” said Chaelff, who was part of the parent advisory group that help guide the district’s plan for the beginning of the the 2020-2021 school year.

If indoor learning provides too much of a risk, Schmidt said outdoor instruction could be an option. The Portland Society for Architecture has been working with schools to find ways to offer instruction outside.

“Outside school is the least bad option, especially because students that need to be inside would then have plenty of space to do so safely. But it turns out there is plenty of research showing outside education is always beneficial. Kids can play games while learning math and write stories on clipboards. They can study the trees as they change colors or sit in the grass and read books. And most importantly they can learn social skills just by being around other kids and teachers. Rainy days would have to be remote, and students that need to be inside could stay inside,” Schmidt said.

Dan Muller, whose children will be going into kindergarten and first grade at Ocean Avenue Elementary School in the fall, said “outdoor only instruction is the only acceptable option to explore.”

“Simply put, indoor classes for Portland during a new respiratory-based viral pandemic is irresponsible and misguided public health,” Muller said. “And right now parents and teachers are being given a false and unnecessary choice between physical health, and emotional and mental health. Transmission rates indoors are estimated to be 20 times what they are outside. The hybrid plan is flawed on many levels in controlling virus transmission.”

“Portland is fortunate to have ample outdoor space around most schools, a vast network of public parks within easy walking distance, and active networks of families, donors and public health professionals clamoring to implement outdoor solutions,”

Muller said close to 90 percent of teachers polled by Portland Public School are interested in outdoor classrooms. Superintendent Xavier Botana said it is something that is being explored.

“Anything that mitigates the risk is a better option,” Weed said.

Parents are not the only ones who are weighing the pros and cons of school being held in person again. At a meeting with staff last month, close to two-thirds of instructional staff indicated they were either planning not to return or unsure whether they would return to their jobs in the fall even if it is determined safe to do so. More than half said they were not confident in the district’s ability to reopen schools safely and 180 of the district’s 1,3000 staff members have requested flexible work options or accommodations under the American with Disabilities Act.

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