Tess Conroy, a junior at Portland High School, watches a video for her physics class while remote-learning in her dining room. Conroy is among the students and parents who are pushing for more in-person learning. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Portland High School junior Georgia Littell takes all her classes online, starting with an art class that she wakes up for about 10 minutes ahead of time.

That’s followed by AP English and geometry, which can be difficult because the teacher’s screen is often blurry, and Latin, which is “one of the better classes remotely.”

So goes the school day for Littell and other Portland Public Schools students in grades 10 through 12, who are taking all their core classes remotely with some in-person opportunities available through the district’s Learning Center model for high school students.

“I do all my work and I’m trying to make the best of it,” said Littell, 17. “But I feel like there are some experiences we aren’t getting.”

Littell, some of her classmates and their parents are among a group of Portland high school students and their families pushing the district for more in-person learning opportunities for 10th- through 12th-graders. Most elementary and middle school students in Portland are in-person two days per week and several surrounding school districts have also made that option possible for high school students.

“The only answers we get are it’s too complicated,” said Littell’s mother, Penelope St. Louis. “We just got a bunch of federal money that has to be spent by the end of this year. I would suggest we spend this on a space planner that does this for a living that can tell us how to use the space to get our children in these grades back to school.”

Last week Portland Public Schools announced it would hold off on adding additional days of in-person learning for elementary school students, something it had said it would re-evaluate in mid-October as part of the hybrid plan approved in August. At the same time, Superintendent Xavier Botana said the district also doesn’t plan to change the instructional model for high school students for the time being but will work to improve the Learning Center, which is an established time when students can come in-person to meet with a teacher.

Deering and Casco Bay high schools currently require students to come for an advisory or crew period once a week as part of the Learning Center, though Portland High is still working on the requirement due to differences in how that school schedules student seminars. According to district data, 22 percent of students had appointments in-person at least once in the second week of school and almost 30 percent had appointments either in-person or virtually.

George Theall, a junior at Portland High School, attends a remote-learning class from his dining room Monday. He said the abbreviated school day has made it hard for teachers to cover all content.  Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Botana said the decision to not add more in-person opportunities for high school students is due to staffing challenges and the district’s decision to exercise an abundance of caution when it comes to physical distancing.

“We’re adhering to a 6-foot distancing requirement for high school students and not all the other high schools are adhering to that,” he said. “We have tried to be on the side of caution and so we have for our middle schools and high schools committed to keeping 6 feet of distance.”

He said the guidance from the state and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention is “somewhat fuzzy” on the issue of how much space should be kept between students, with the guidance saying 6 six feet is desirable but 3 feet is acceptable if other mitigation elements are in place, but then in another place saying 6 feet is recommended for adults and adult students.

Botana also said that adding in-person time for high school students could pose staffing and scheduling conflicts. While the district currently offers a fully remote option, Remote Academy, to students in preschool through ninth grade, there is no such option for 10th- through 12th-graders since the district decided that all their core classes would be online.

“If we have a large number of students who are going to say, ‘I’m going to stay remote,’ we then need to figure out how do we staff and carry out classes for those students and what are the implications from a staffing perspective,” Botana said.

Currently the district has not changed its master class schedule from what was going to be prior to the pandemic, but if more in-person time were added, that might have to change depending on the availability of teachers, Botana said.

Tess Conroy takes notes Monday while watching a video for her physics class in her dining room. Conroy thinks it’s unfair that 10th- through 12th-graders are not able to take in-person classes, “when many of those students worked summer jobs where they had to wear masks and get used to social distancing for long periods of time.”  Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“There are people who teach a certain class who would say ‘I can no longer teach because you’re making me come to school in person,’ he said. “We’re talking high school, where specialized certification and specialized knowledge is very much in play. If that’s the person who teaches programming or AP history then we have a serious concern which we will have to bridge.”

Mary Murphy and her daughter Tess Conroy are among those who are frustrated with the situation for 10th- through 12th-graders. “It’s striking what an extreme outlier Portland is,” Murphy said. “All the other high schools public and private have figured out how to offer hybrid learning for all students. Our students are getting three hours of remote class time four days per week, so only 12 hours of formal instruction time per week.”

Conroy, a junior at Portland high, said she thinks it is unfair that 10th- through 12th-graders are not able to take in-person classes when many of those students worked summer jobs where they had to wear masks and get used to social distancing for long periods. Taking classes remotely makes it hard to have interactions with classmates in small group discussions or through partner work, she said.

“All other students in Portland Public Schools except the 10th- through 12th-graders are going back,” said Conroy, 16. “It doesn’t make sense to me. I know myself and a lot of other high schoolers had a job where we had to social distance and learn how to be safe, but now those kids aren’t the ones allowed to go back to school.”

George Theall, who is also a junior at Portland High, said the abbreviated school day has made it hard for teachers to cover all the content. Trying to administer tests remotely is a challenge, as Theall said teachers are allowing students to use their notes to take tests at home.

“It’s easier to focus when it’s in person,” said Theall, 16. “You don’t have random distractions and for tests you sort of have to study because you don’t have your notes. Teachers are saying, ‘We can’t stop kids from cheating so we’re allowing notes.’ It’s not an incentive to study, which is not good if you want to actually do well and learn the subject.”

All three Portland High students said transportation and scheduling make it difficult for students to access the Learning Center, as sports and other activities in the afternoon sometimes overlap.

“Having it in the afternoon right after your seminar class ends makes it difficult to get there,” Conroy said. “A lot of people have licenses but they don’t have a car. Their parents are working so they can’t get a ride.”

Botana said part of the reason for low attendance may be that the Learning Center is new and teachers and students are just getting used to it. He also said the district will be surveying parents, students and staff this week to find out why the Learning Center model is underutilized.

“I totally understand their frustration,” Botana said. “I have a kid who just graduated. I know how challenging it is for a student, particularly a junior or senior, as they’re trying to get their credentials in order to do their decision making for the next step of their life to have to do that all remote. I 100 percent understand and sympathize with those families.”

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