Portland’s Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana said Thursday that while reopening public schools under a hybrid model that combines remote learning with in-person learning remains a priority, he said the the district may have to shut down schools completely and return to all virtual classes if there is a COVID-19 outbreak at one or more schools.

Botana answered questions about the district’s plan for reopening public schools during a special Thursday afternoon news conference at the Portland School District offices on Cumberland Avenue.

Botana elaborated on some of the reopening details that were approved late Wednesday night following a marathon Board of Education hearing and business meeting that lasted nearly seven hours. The school year will begin for students on Sept. 14.

An issue that surfaced during the meeting was the fact that 155 classroom teachers have requested a flexible work arrangement. Botana said the requests were mostly based on personal health care concerns or child care needs. Such arrangements could include working remotely, flexible in-person schedules, or other types of arrangements related to workspace or the need for specific personal protective equipment.

The Portland Education Association represents about 730 classroom teachers, guidance counselors, social workers, nurses, librarians, therapeutic specialists and psychologists. Of that total, about 80 percent are classified as classroom teachers, according to the school district.

Classroom teachers whose needs can not be accommodated will have the option of leaving the district or opting to take a leave of absence. If a significant number of teachers choose to leave, the school district could be faced with a shortage of teachers just weeks before the school year is set to begin. The district might be forced to backfill those openings with new hires.

According to the district’s Human Resources Department, 19 classroom teachers at Portland High School, 19 teachers at Deering High School and 18 teachers at King Middle School are among those classroom teachers who have requested flexible work arrangements. About 50 classroom teachers have asked to be assigned to the Remote Learning Academy, where there would be no in-person contact with students. How it all plays out remains to be seen, Botana said.

“If we end up having a significant number of teachers who can’t work, that could present a very big challenge for us, but right now we just don’t know who is coming back to work for us,” Botana said.

When schools reopen, students in grades nine or below will be allowed to attend in-person classes for at least two days a week. High school students will continue with a virtual learning program, but if the district’s reopening plan proves to be successful, Botana said the school board could decide to expand in-person learning for grades 10-12 sometime in October.

When schools reopen, ninth-graders will attend in-person classes two days a week, with Wednesdays a remote learning day for all students in the district. Students in grades 10-12 will be taught their courses remotely from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. four days a week. In the afternoons, high school students can receive in-person academic support in small groups or in a one-on-one support situation between 1:15 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. All high school students will participate in weekly advisory meetings either in person or virtually.

The reopening plan calls for students in pre-K through grade five to begin with two days of in-person instruction. Those students could return full time on Oct. 13 if there are no outbreaks.

Under the reopening plan approved by the school board, the district will offer outdoor learning classrooms at each school. Students could potentially spend as much as half a day learning outside, depending on weather conditions and other factors.

“We are highly committed to making it a priority to being outside, given the health and safety benefits and the desire from the community,” said Melea Nalli, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning.

School officials said they want to help families understand and ask questions about the reopening plan, health safety protocols and the use of technology. Toward that end, the district will host virtual family orientation sessions at each school.

Family orientation meetings will be held for multilingual families on Wednesday at 9 a.m. and next Friday at 6 p.m. Interpreters will be available.

A helpline also will be available for multilingual families. They can leave questions in their native language on the helpline 207-874-8159. An interpreter will respond. About 35 percent of the district’s students come from homes where languages other than English are spoken. More than 60 languages are spoken by Portland’s students.

A virtual Parent University will be held on Sept. 1-2, for parents of remote learners who need help with technology such as Google Classroom and SeeSaw. Those training sessions will be held at 5:30 p.m.

Families that opt to not send their children back to classrooms have until Monday to enroll in the district’s “Remote Learning Academy” – a completely virtual classroom learning experience. Families may enroll on the district’s website: portlandschools.org.

Teachers will begin their school year on Monday and will use that time for professional development and planning. The week of Sept. 7 will be designated student sample days, when students and staff will have the chance to experience what in-person school will be like. Student attendance is not mandatory, but is encouraged.

The Portland Public Schools are Maine’s largest school district, with approximately 6,750 students.

 

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