Portland Superintendent Xavier Botana answers questions about the school reopening plan outside the school district office on Cumberland Avenue Aug. 20. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

PORTLAND — Portland Superintendent Xavier Botana last week justified the decision to partially reopen schools to students during the COVID-19 pandemic, citing science and the benefits of in-person learning.

“We believe the science that this is the time you can actually open schools to in-person,” Botana said. “The data we are looking at, the data the state has provided, the data that the same individuals who have managed to set state policy that has kept us where we are, suggests this is an appropriate move. It’s actually a conservative move according to the data,” he said.

As of Aug. 16, the last time results were posted by zip code, Portland had seen 857 cases of COVID-19. The numbers and the rate of infection in the city, Botana said “are significantly lower than in so many of the other states and cities that are attempting to reopen schools.”

Beginning Sept. 14, students pre-kindergarten through grade 9 will attend classes in person two days a week and have three days of remote learning. Sophomores, juniors and seniors will have five days of remote instruction, but will be able to meet with teachers or other staff for academic or social/emotional needs help up to four days a week.

The Board of Education unanimously approved the plan Aug. 19.

Some Portland parents, however, don’t feel comfortable with the school reopening plan. Parents of more than a quarter of the pre-K to ninth grade student body indicated they were opting for fully remote learning, according to a recent Portland Schools survey.

“We have heard parents say because of health concerns or flexibility in their lives, they would prefer not exposing their children to a higher likelihood of infection that comes from a congregate environment,” Botana said. “We understand that and that’s why we offered the opportunity (for remote learning).”

For most students, though, it is important to receive in-person instruction this fall, said Chris Reiger, Portland Schools’ director of Clinical and Behavioral Support Services. Limited interaction with peers and school staff “can affect a child’s social, emotional wellness behavior, which can impact performance and academic development,” he said.

Deborah Mullis, director of Student Support Services, said students in special services were most negatively impacted by remote learning in the spring. English language learners, Black, Indigenous, people of color and students who are economically disadvantaged were also impacted. Those students need to be back in school, she said, for the face-to-face discussion and interaction that “is just not possible through remote.”

Casco Bay High School Principal Derek Pierce said while many students were able to adjust to remote learning this spring, fall provides a challenge that spring did not: forging relationship with new teachers and classmates.

“There is a whole new magnitude of challenges to start remote in the fall,” he said.

Botana said the hybrid model, which combines in-person and remote learning for students, provides opportunity for students to develop relationships in person.

The district will be forced back into fully remote learning, he said, if there is an outbreak at a school or if the state elevates the chance of the virus spreading in Cumberland County.

The ability to offer in-person instruction will also depend on how many staff members return to work. Close to 84% of the 880 staff surveyed indicated they would return to school, but Botana said last week that 155 teachers have said they are uncomfortable with in-person teaching and have requested accommodations. Some of those teachers, he said, may be teaching through the Remote Academy.

If a significant number of teachers decide they won’t teach in person, Botana said “that could be a significant challenge for us to do what we’ve set out to do.”

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