Union leaders for teachers and educational technicians in Portland Public Schools said Wednesday they are satisfied with the collaborative effort that yielded a new agreement with the district regarding working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic, but many concerns remain about health and safety as the school year gets underway.

The agreement, approved unanimously Tuesday night by the Portland Board of Public Education, establishes a temporary addendum to collective bargaining agreements to cover things like compensation, hours and working conditions during the pandemic.

Caroline Foster, president of the Portland Education Association, said in an email Wednesday the union was pleased at how the memorandum of understanding “truly was a collaborative effort with the district.”

“It was clear through the process that we all have the same endgame of keeping people safe so we can focus on the real work of care and education,” she said.

Tuesday night, however, Foster said she had heard from staff who were concerned about how a COVID-19 symptom screening app would work and others who were reporting that personal protective equipment had not yet been delivered or that they had concerns about adequate ventilation.

“Anything that remains a concern? Absolutely. We’re all losing sleep over the unknowns – what if we didn’t think of something that turns out, as we learn more about the virus, to be a really big deal?” Foster said Wednesday. “How do we create an environment where our students at least have the opportunity to thrive academically and socially? What’s the best way, with limited resources, to help meet the needs our community has right now?”

Michele Lawless, president of the union representing educational technicians, said Wednesday that overall she is also pleased with the collaboration between the unions and the district, but there are still many questions.

“Of course, many, many questions and concerns remain,” Lawless said by email Wednesday. “Are we doing everything we can to keep our students and colleagues safe? How do we protect our most vulnerable even (or especially) while trying to serve them? How do we prioritize and meet all the extensive needs in our district with limited funds? And the big question – how much do we risk for this work & these students that we love so much? Obviously, not questions that have easy answers. But, as in so many other times, we will forge ahead.”

Lawless, Foster and other union leaders with the district and state raised concerns at the special school board meeting Tuesday centered around access to personal protective equipment and supplies and the rollout of the daily symptom-check app.

Lawless said during the meeting she has “been fielding up to 12 hours of phone calls over the last five days,” especially from ed techs who work in programs where they would likely be exposed to students’ bodily fluids. She said the messaging varies around what kind of PPE staff will receive and how to respond to students who refuse to wear masks.

“Many have been told if a student refuses to wear protective gear they will be isolated with that student alone in a room and the rooms identified do not have ventilation,” Lawless said.

“Despite all the hard work to be done there is still much to do to keep students and staff safe,” she added. “I would ask you to consider waiting until everything is not just ordered or you’ve heard it will be arriving but that it is here to keep our students, families and members safe.”

Portland students have already started returning in person for orientations, though they will not take place this week at Lyseth Elementary School because of construction delays, or at King Middle School because of inadequate staffing. The first official day of school is Monday.

Stephanie Von Glinsky, a UniServ director for the Maine Education Association, also urged the board to delay the start of orientations. She said other districts and schools have delayed the start because of health and safety concerns, community spread or instances of people testing positive.

“Hearing that we don’t have PPE for folks who are going to be exposed to some of our most at-risk students, that we don’t have confirmation of adequate ventilation and we don’t have hand sanitizer in schools – some of most basic requirements – I don’t see how you can in good faith suggest we should bring students into school tomorrow, let alone staff,” Von Glinsky said.

Portland Public Schools Superintendent Xavier Botana said at Tuesday’s meeting that some “hiccups” are inevitable.

“I know there are concerns about many different things,” Botana said. “I share all of them. I’ve had many sleepless nights and will probably continue to have sleepless nights as we get ready for this. I will also tell you there are going to be hiccups in the opening of school. There are hiccups in the opening of school all the time and there will be tomorrow as well.”

With regard to the screening app, Botana said it will work as an email or text message asking families to affirm they have done symptom checks and not answered “yes” to any of the questions. He said no training is required for families but the district is still working on how to compile survey results. Only a handful of districts are formally collecting information on symptom checks from families, while most are relying on an honor system for that state requirement, Botana said.

“This is a test run of everything and I will point out there will be a significant number of people who don’t do the survey tomorrow morning, but that’s what the test run is for,” Botana said.

He said there is a “significant amount” of PPE already in schools and more will be delivered. The district has 700 face shields that have been distributed and is waiting on a delivery that will bring the number up to 2,200, he said. The district has also ordered N-95 masks for all staff that will be delivered Thursday.

“I know there is a tremendous amount of trepidation,” Botana said Tuesday night. “I absolutely can guarantee there will be hiccups along the way tomorrow, Thursday and next week. There are no questions this will not be a flawless start but many of the things you heard today are not factual.”

Lawless said Wednesday some of the PPE discussed Tuesday night has since been delivered, including face shields, cloth masks and air filters, but they are still waiting on gowns and gloves. She said she was also informed Wednesday by the special education department that a large order of N-95 masks has been processed and that while the delivery date is not known, they will be made available to staff that request them when they come in.

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