By the time you read this, the first day of school for Portland Public Schools students – Monday, Sept. 14 – will be behind us. At the time of this writing, our plan is to open in hybrid mode, with a mix of in-person and remote learning. But one thing we’ve learned from this pandemic is that we have to be ready to change as circumstances dictate.

Xavier Botana is the superintendent of Portland Public Schools. He can be reached at [email protected]

It has been six months – yes, half a year! – since we closed school on Monday, March 16. The Friday before that turned out to be our last day of in-person school as we’d always known it. Our plan then was to close for a couple of weeks, but that had to change as it became clear that there was community spread of COVID-19 in our county. The closure extended for months, to the end of the school year, because it just wasn’t safe to return.

Even before the school year ended, our Reopening Planning Team started planning for the 2020-2021 school year. Again, because of the possibility of changing circumstances associated with this pandemic, we had to plan for three very different scenarios for the new school year: a full reopening of school, a hybrid scenario and full remote learning. Then we had to wait until later in the summer to learn more about COVID-19 public health restrictions and Maine Department of Education guidance before we could present a clear recommendation – for the hybrid model – to the Portland Board of Public Education for a vote.

The DOE this summer decided it would use a color-coded classification system to rate each county every two weeks on its COVID risk. The state has coded Cumberland County “green” since it began the system at the end of July. Green means a relatively low risk of COVID-19 spread and that schools can implement in-person learning, with safety precautions that include masks, symptom checks and physical distancing in place.

Our county’s green rating factored into the board’s unanimous decision to approve our hybrid learning plan on Aug. 19. But built into the plan they approved was a provision that recognized circumstances could change. Part of that plan is that we will switch to remote learning if the state changes its classification of Cumberland County to “yellow” or “red.”

A yellow designation would mean our county has an elevated risk of COVID-19 spread. Although the state allows school districts to continue with hybrid learning with extra precautions under a yellow classification, we plan to have all students learn remotely, in an abundance of caution.

The same, of course, would be true if the state classifies Cumberland County as red. Red would mean there is a high risk of COVID-19 spread and that in-person instruction is not advisable.

Fortunately, as I write this, Cumberland County is still green and we expect hybrid learning to move forward. I’m hoping that our county and community remain low risk so that we don’t have to change our plan.

Change is hard and unexpected change even harder. The Portland Public Schools community has already faced great change. It was extremely challenging for students, families and staff to suddenly switch from in-person to remote learning this past spring. I’m proud of everyone for working together during that time to make that change as successful as possible.

Let’s all continue to work together and support each other. And let’s help keep our community’s COVID risk low by wearing masks, washing our hands and watching our distance. That will help ensure a successful school year – no matter what.

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