The Portland Board of Public Education voted 9-0 late Wednesday night to adopt a hybrid learning plan that will allow most lower grade students to attend at least two days of in-person learning beginning Sept. 14.

The board’s decision, which was made just before midnight, came after a virtual marathon meeting that began Tuesday night and had to be postponed until Wednesday evening. Board members spent more than six hours Tuesday and more than six hours Wednesday listening to public comment and debating the merits of the plan.

Several members said the decision to safely reopen schools was one of the hardest they’ve faced during their time on the school board largely due to the risks posed by the potential spread of COVID-19.

The board, meeting virtually, listened to public comment from dozens of teachers, parents, and students, who offered a wide range of opinions on opening classrooms to in-person learning during a global pandemic that has claimed more than 170,000 lives in the United States.

Some of the speakers urged the board to allow high school students to return to their classrooms – the hybrid reopening plan proposed by Superintendent Xavier Botana does not allow that to happen until October at the earliest – while others begged the board to not reopen schools and to continue with the remote learning programs that began in March.

The board voted 7-2 Wednesday evening against an amendment that would have allowed high school students to attend in-person classes two days a week starting next month.

“I hear the intense desire of students and parents to being back in school. I hear that, but I want to take a cautious approach,” board member Emily Fidgor said.

Wednesday’s workshop and public hearing came just one day after the board spent hours reviewing a hybrid reopening plan before postponing its decision. Botana’s hybrid model calls for elementary school students to be taught in-person two days per week and remotely two days per week, with the goal of bringing all pre-K through fifth grade students back in-person five days per week by mid-October.

Elementary school students attending Peaks Island Elementary and Cliff Island School would be the exceptions, starting school in-person five and four days per week, respectively. Portland middle school students would follow a hybrid schedule similar to that of most elementary students and would attend class in-person two days per week. Students in grades 10-12 at Portland High School and Deering High School would take classes remotely in a learning center model with access to in-person supports or virtual office hours with teachers. School officials will re-evaluate the high school situation in October.

Cliff Island school during the first week of classes last year as teacher Jenny Baum starts the year with a lesson in “whole body listening” to the school’s two students. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The hybrid learning model will depend on adequate staffing at all of the city’s public schools, but the board learned Wednesday night that maintaining staffing in a pandemic could become an issue that has the potential to affect schools reopening.

A workshop presentation on staffing from Barbara Stoddard, the school district’s director of human resources, revealed that 155 classroom teachers have requested a flexible work arrangement, meaning that the teacher may have a pre-existing medical condition or personal circumstance what warrants a special accommodation.

A total of 269 teachers, educational technicians and district employees have requested flexible work arrangements, according to Stoddard. There are about 700 teachers in Portland public schools.

Stoddard explained that the Americans with Disabilities Act allows such requests and that if the district can not accommodate the teachers’ request they could chose to leave the district or opt to take a leave of absence. Stoddard said that 50 of the 155 classroom teachers who have asked for a flexible work arrangement have requested that they be allowed to teach students remotely.

The district has been considering each request on a case-by-case basis, but if a significant number of teachers choose to leave the district before schools reopen – the proposed reopening date is Sept. 14 – the district could be faced with a teacher shortage.

“We don’t know yet what our losses are going to look like, which makes this reopening plan all the more challenging,” Botana told the board. “The lynchpin to our plan is having the ability to staff our schools.”

More than 60 people had offered comments about the school reopening plan by 10 p.m. Among them was Penelope St. Louis, the parent of a high school junior.

“I feel like students in grades 10 through 12 are being left behind in our reopening plan,” St. Louis said. “High school students need to be receiving classroom instruction to succeed. At best they are being overlooked and at worst they are being disregarded.”

St. Louis urged the board to consider allowing high school students to attend in-person classes for two days each week.

Michelle Amato is the mother of a high school senior. She said she was excited about getting students back to school, but she is also nervous about the threat posed by COVID-19.

“I’m desperate for us to get back to school, but I’m desperate that we do it safely,” Amato said.

Joe Conroy is the father of junior at Portland High School. He also asked the board to reconsider its position on in-person learning for high schoolers.

“It is hard for me to understand why students in grades 10 through 12 are being offered so little,” Conroy said. “Reassessing the situation in October doesn’t pass as a plan to me.”

Christa Vo, the mother of four children who attend Reiche Elementary School, said she worries about what may happen if there is an outbreak of COVID-19 at a Portland school. She mentioned the Millinockett wedding reception where two dozen people recently tested positive for COVID-19.

“To me, there is a lot of risk right now,” Vo said. “I really don’t want that to happen here now. It really concerns me.”

Anna Fink, the mother of two elementary school students, asked the board to reconsider opening schools up to in-person classes and to adopt a remote learning program for the immediate future.

“If we open up the schools, it’s my view the numbers (of people testing positive for COVID-19) will go up,” Fink said. She worries that city schools may have to close after they reopen. “We are preparing to spend resources on something we can’t get back.”

“I do feel scared about going back to school,” said Amy Reed, an elementary school teacher. Reed suggested the district test teachers for COVID-19.

Lydia Stein, a senior at Portland High School, questioned why the district would not allow high school students attend in-person classes.

“It’s a huge mistake to not let students back in the schools,” Stein said. “I am angry and I am confused as why we can’t have in-person classes for at least two days a week.”

Stein, who plans to apply for college, said seniors need help in planning their future. She worries that high schoolers restricted to distance learning will become depressed and will develop substance abuse problems.

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