A handful of parents expressed concern Tuesday night over the Portland school district’s plans to stick with its current school reopening model as district leaders cited barriers, including physical space and staffing, to increasing in-person learning.

“We’re in a green status,” said Erin Brennan, a parent of a Portland High School junior. “We’ve been in green status. I’m not sure why 10th through 12th graders are being treated as red status when everyone else in the area is in person to some extent. The learning center is a band aid. It should not replace core academic time.”

Tuesday’s meeting followed decisions by Superintendent Xavier Botana to not add additional in-person days for students in preschool through 5th grades, most of whom are in-person two days per week under the current hybrid model. The district has also reassessed its model for high school students in grades 10 through 12, who currently take classes online but have access to in-person support through a “learning center,” and decided not to make any changes.

The decisions for both elementary and high school students will be reassessed later this fall, while middle school students are projected to stay in the hybrid model for the foreseeable future.

School officials Tuesday reiterated for the school board some of the challenges they face as they consider whether to incorporate more in-person learning – they include staffing and physical space challenges.

Botana said the district is adhering to 6 feet of separation for middle and high school students. In addition, the district is adhering to 6 feet of distance for elementary school students during meal times, and 3 feet at other times along with other mitigating factors such as masks.

Adding more students, especially given that some students who are now remote-only might wish to return to in-person instruction at the end of the trimester, would make it difficult to maintain distancing requirements, he said.

A move to more in-person instruction could result in changes to the accommodation requests for faculty and staff. In addition, adding in-person time would mean schools would likely need two to three additional staff at each building to help implement health and safety protocols.

Assistant Superintendent Aaron Townsend, in a presentation to the board, said one of the most significant challenges with reopening schools has been the roll-out of the Learning Center, a program that allows high school students time to have in-person advisory meetings or meet with teachers.

So far, the Learning Center has been underutilized. Each high school student can potentially have a total of 10 in-person or virtual Learning Center appointments each week, but during the third week of school last week, students had only utilized 6.5 percent of the available appointments. The goal is to have about 25 to 30 percent of appointments filled.

Townsend said schools will be increasing the number and frequency of required Learning Center sessions to boost attendance, and will also be surveying students to find out why attendance is low.

About a half dozen parents Tuesday expressed concern with the Learning Center model and said they want more in-person instruction for high school students.

Joe Conroy, whose daughter is a junior at Portland High, said he has friends with children in surrounding districts that have been able to offer some in-person high school instruction. “We’re the only school in the entire area that has no in-person learning at all,” Conroy said. “It’s hard for me to understand why Portland can’t figure out how to give these kids something at least.”

School board members spent more than an hour questioning officials about the reopening plans. Questions included where the district is with distributing technology to students, how English language learners are being supported and about the offerings for 10th through 12th graders. Several commended the district on the work that has gone into reopening.

Board Chair Roberto Rodriguez acknowledged the concerns of parents but said the challenges outlined by the district have prohibited more options for high schoolers.

“No option that seems to be viable has been presented yet,” Rodriguez said. “We have acknowledged we are very concerned for these children and we have acknowledged this is immensely inequitable. We’ve also acknowledged everyone is working as hard as they’ve ever worked their entire careers.”

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