Portland Public Schools plan to increase the amount of in-person learning for high school students later this month by requiring them to attend school twice weekly during “Learning Center” hours on campus.

The Learning Center is an established time when students can access in-person or virtual office hours, support and advisory outside of the core classes they take remotely.

To date, students at Casco Bay High School have had an assigned day for the Learning Center based on their grade level, while students at Deering and Portland high schools have not been required to attend but have been encouraged to utilize the Learning Center at least once per week.

“Over the past few weeks the high school leadership has been focused on increasing the effectiveness of the Learning Center, reflecting on survey data and engaging with school leadership and faculty,” Assistant Superintendent Aaron Townsend said during a board meeting Tuesday night. “We’ve seen results where we’ve focused time, attention and energy.”

Attendance lagged following the initial rollout of the Learning Center as part of the district’s hybrid model. A small number of families also reported dissatisfaction with the structure and pushed for more in-person classes.

Townsend said Tuesday that Learning Center attendance at Portland and Deering high schools has doubled from September, when about 20 percent of students were accessing at least one in person session per week on average, to currently more than 40 percent of students are using the center at least once per week.

Townsend said district survey data have shown that a majority of parents, students and staff agree that things are going better now than they were in the spring and students feel safe at school. The survey data was originally presented Oct. 20, and both Portland schools and the state have seen increases in coronavirus case numbers since then.

“The concerning part of the data aligned with anecdotal feedback we’ve gotten from students and families is regarding the social/emotional wellness of our upperclassmen,” Townsend said. “They cited the lack of connection to peers and others as a major obstacle for them since remote learning began.”

While the schedule for ninth-graders, who have in-person classes three hours per day twice a week, and the remote class schedule for upperclassmen won’t change, Townsend said that starting Nov. 30 the 10th- through 12th-graders will be required to attend the Learning Center in-person two days per week. He said schedules will be communicated from schools to families in the coming week.

No one from the public commented on the change at Tuesday’s meeting. In an email Monday, Caroline Foster, president of the Portland Education Association, said “there’s definitely a range of thinking on this from our members – all coming from wanting to do what’s best for the safety and well-being of staff and students, but worrying how that can be assured. It’s an evolving conversation.”

For students in pre-K through eighth grade, there won’t be any changes to the hybrid schedule for the time being, but the district is working to improve the instruction that happens on remote learning days, said Melea Nalli, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning. Teachers also have noted concerns about not all students having reliable access to technology on remote days, and Nalli said the district is trying to address that.

Cumberland County is currently in a “green” designation in the state’s school reopening advisory system, meaning the risk of spread of COVID-19 is relatively low and school districts can offer in-person instruction as long as they adhere to health and safety guidelines. However, like many districts around Maine, Portland schools are operating in a “yellow” or hybrid model.

While the county has not yet seen any changes in color in the state advisory system, Superintendent Xavier Botana said the district is preparing for all possibilities, including a “red” designation, meaning the state suggests a move to fully remote learning. “We continue to make preparations for all remote instruction, but will continue to prioritize in-person instruction for as many students as possible for as long as possible,” he said.

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