In the battle over in-person learning at Portland high schools, students have won the latest round over their parents.

Portland Public Schools Superintendent Xavier Botana told parents in a letter Friday that the school district will not move forward with its previously announced plans to increase the amount of scheduled in-person time for students, scheduled to take effect Monday. He cited the likely increase in the number of COVID-19 cases coming into the schools in the weeks ahead if the district proceeded with its plan.

Botana’s decision to increase in-person learning prompted an outcry from students, who said the move was premature and unsafe. More than 230 students signed a petition asking the district to reverse the decision, which affected students in grades 10 to 12.

On Friday, Botana did exactly that. His decision affects Portland sophomores, juniors and seniors, who have been learning almost exclusively remotely under the district’s school reopening plan. Some parents lobbied for more in-person learning, prompting the backlash from students, who were worried after case numbers started to climb.

In his letter Friday announcing the newly revised plan, Botana cited those rising case numbers – and singled out the health concerns of staff members and the inconvenience to parents.

“Since then, I have heard from staff who have serious health and safety concerns. I am cognizant of the likely increase in cases being brought into our schools over the coming weeks. With that in mind, I am making the decision to let you know about this change of direction, recognizing that it is untimely and a disruption to many of you,” Botana wrote. “We recognize the challenges posed by our current learning model. A review of the first quarter attendance and course failures shows that too many of our students are not being reached by our current structure. We will redouble our efforts to focus on improving attendance and supporting our students’ learning in their classes. Our educators and administrators will work proactively and creatively to ensure that our students are meeting their educational goals.”

Audrey Watson, the student body president at Portland High and one the students who started the petition drive, said she was “in shock, but super excited” by the decision.

“I wasn’t expecting this. I was expecting to go in-person on Monday,” she said in a phone interview Friday night. That prospect made her anxious, and she grew more anxious as Monday approached, because of the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Maine and across the country. Friday’s decision brought relief, she said.

She texted with her peers Friday night, celebrating what felt like a common-sense victory. They might not have been given credit, but at least they felt like they were heard.

“The numbers are definitely going up, and they are bound to keep going up. I cannot see them going down at this point, so I am definitely thankful they realized that,” she said of the school district  administrators. “It feels really good, because it sucks feeling we were not being heard. I am definitely thankful they finally listened.”


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