East End Community School principal Boyd Marley discusses preparations and precautions for the upcoming school year in a classroom at the school during a tour Monday. To the right is school board member Abusana “Micky” Bondo. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Students at East End Community School would sit one per seat on the school bus and spread out to different entrances to enter school this fall.

They’d take more classes outdoors and when indoors, would be separated from peers with plexiglass dividers. Breakfast would be served in classrooms and lunch would be to-go at the end of an abbreviated school day.

Those are some of the proposed changes highlighted for members of the Portland Board of Public Education and media during a walk-through at the school Monday. The tour came a day before the board is scheduled to vote on a hybrid learning model for a return to classes.

“I was encouraged today,” said board member Emily Figdor. “I do think there’s a lot of potential with outdoor classrooms and I would like to see us scale that up to the extent possible. We’re more limited at some schools than other schools but you see the opportunity here.”

Board members toured the school in small groups, with some visiting Friday and others Monday. Micky Bondo, who also visited Monday, said she was impressed with the changes at East End but there is still much to be discussed at Tuesday’s meeting.

“I think the CDC guidance and the state of Maine have been really good to control the virus during the pandemic,” Bondo said. “This is about the safety and health of students, staff and teachers. There is a lot to be discussed tomorrow at the school board.

“We’re going to get answers to a lot of questions we had about facility improvements (and) about how many teachers we will have on site. We need to make sure we have enough teachers on site who are willing to come back and do in-person versus remote. That is going to be key.”

East End is among 10 elementary schools in Portland Public Schools and enrolls about 400 students. With the exception of the Cliff Island School and Peaks Island Elementary School, elementary students in the district would return in person two days per week for a five-hour school day under the proposed plan.

Wednesdays would be designated for targeted student outreach and teacher planning and students would also learn remotely two days per week. The plan also calls for a two-week delay to the start of school, making the first day Sept. 14, and says that if schools successfully adjust to the health and safety requirements, elementary students could come back to their schools five days per week starting Oct. 13.

A sign on the floor of East End Community School in Portland reminds students returning in the fall to stay 6 feet apart. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The middle school plans are similar, while most high school students would follow a “learning center” model, in which they would participate in classes remotely four days per week. The plan is slightly different for high school freshman, who would attend school in person two days per week for three hours each, and learn remotely the rest of the time.

A public hearing on the plan earlier this month drew a range of reactions. Some teachers said it is unsafe to return in person right now and some high school parents and students want to see more in-person classes for high school upperclassmen. In addition, a change.org petition started last week calling for the district to stay remote for the first trimester had gathered about 230 signatures by Monday afternoon.

School board members who toured East End on Monday got a chance to see several outdoor learning spaces, which include space directly behind the school as well as a community garden across the street where tree stumps were placed in a circle to create a classroom. The use of outdoor classroom space is something schools around the state are exploring in an effort to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

East End Principal Boyd Marley said he hopes to allow as many teachers and students as possible to be outside. He also said the school hopes to make outdoor learning a permanent part of its environment. “This isn’t just a short-term COVID fix, but we’re hoping it also becomes part of our long-term philosophy,” Marley said.

Students will be required to perform daily symptom checks either at home or before entering school and to sanitize their hands at stations set up at every entrance. Several doors and windows were open Monday to allow for better ventilation.

Lily Chaleff, the schools and youth program coordinator with Cultivating Community, explains how the garden can be used as a classroom, during a tour of East End Community School in Portland on Monday. Stumps are marked with a yellow dot to show students where they can sit at a safe distance. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

In a kindergarten classroom, plexiglass barriers separated seats at opposite ends of tables spaced 4 feet apart. Each table contained individual containers for students to keep supplies, as schools will have to minimize students sharing things like pencils, crayons and scissors.

If elementary students do return in person five days per week in October, Marley said, East End will be able to bring all students back and still adhere to social distancing requirements, although some adjustments will be needed. Some non-classroom space may need to be converted to classroom space, for example, and instead of the tables 4 feet apart in the kindergarten class, the school would put desks 3 feet apart.

“I’m ready for (the board) to make a final decision,” Marley said. “I understand why it’s taken so long. They need input and a process. But once we have an idea what the model is I’ll just feel better prepared to say, ‘This is what it is. These are the precautions and the protocols we have in place for that model,’ and then to really nail those down.”

Marley said the school will ask parents to reinforce mask-wearing at the start of the school year and will build in time in the day for staff and students to get outside and take a break from wearing masks, although students will be asked to wear them during outdoor classroom time.

“I think kids, especially early on, and adults, will want to take their masks off and take a break, so we want to have those opportunities,” Marley said.

Figdor said she is optimistic about students’ willingness to adhere to the Department of Education requirement that everyone age 5 and up wear a mask. She said staff from the city recreation department came to the Reiche Elementary School PTO meeting last week and talked about how successful the department’s summer program has been in getting children to wear masks.

“I found that very reassuring to hear,” Figdor said.

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