The Portland school district is exploring ways to add in-person classes for high school students as COVID-19 case numbers decline in Maine and schools around the country look at how to bring students back into classrooms.

“There is no specific time line yet, but we plan to make every effort to enable all our students to attend school in person for at least part of the week before this school year ends,” the district said in a statement Wednesday.

Superintendent Xavier Botana is expected to discuss plans with the school board at a meeting Feb. 23 and administrators will be meeting with students and staff in the coming weeks as they consider avenues for adding in-person instruction. The district also will be considering regular COVID-19 testing of students and faculty to enhance safety.

“The current decrease in cases and the broader availability of testing, on top of existing layers of protections, make it possible to restart this effort at this time,” the statement said. “We believe it is safe to cautiously move forward at this point even without vaccinations of our educational staff, for which there is unfortunately no specific timetable at this time.”

Students in grades 10 through 12 currently attend classes remotely and have access to additional support through an in-person “Learning Center.” Students in kindergarten through ninth grades, meanwhile, are on hybrid models that include in-person classes two days per week. The lack of in-person classes for high school students has frustrated some parents and students, who have raised concerns about mental health, learning loss, a lack of social opportunities and fears about being unprepared for college. They want to see the district add more in-person time.

“The frustrating thing is there’s not a lot of understanding around why we’re not in a hybrid model when everyone else is,” said Jim McGowan, whose daughter, Ella, is a junior at Deering High School. “Why can K-9 be in a hybrid but we can’t? We don’t understand the particulars and when you ask those questions you don’t get a response.”

Ella McGowan worries about taking AP exams at the end of the year and not being prepared. “We just don’t have enough time to cover the content,” said McGowan, who said she has four 45-minute online classes per day, for a total of three hours of instruction.

Jacob Bouchard, a senior at Portland High School, sits in his kitchen, where much of his fully remote learning takes place. Bouchard, who plays basketball for the high school team, wishes he could go to school in person. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer  Buy this Photo

Some school board members are worried about the impacts of isolation on students’ mental health and support revisiting how much in-person learning is being offered.

“I think it’s past time for the 10th-12th graders to be back in school,” school board Chair Emily Figdor said in an email. “We’ve turned a corner on cases, and the CDC’s recent report shows minimal transmission in schools nationwide, which is consistent with our experience. I’m most concerned about social isolation among our high school students.”

“From my perspective, I have a lot of concern about young people’s mental health,” board member Aura Russell-Bedder said. “Their education is critically important and our role as a board is to prioritize their education. We’re going on a year of this now. I’m definitely concerned about high schoolers’ mental health and not having that connection with teachers and peers.”

Though Russell-Bedder has heard from parents and students who want to see more in-person learning, she also is aware that others may not feel safe yet.

“Back in November when we were talking about this we certainly had a lot of outpouring from parents and students saying they didn’t want to see more in-person, but I do think we are at a point where it should be discussed again,” Russell-Bedder said.

Board member Roberto Rodriguez said he has heard from parents advocating for more in-person learning, as well as “an equal if not greater voice” from students and others who don’t feel the same sense of urgency and are comfortable with the current model and protocols.

“It’s been relayed through (the superintendent’s) messaging the idea of quantity over quality cannot drive this conversation,” Rodriguez said. “Increasing in-person for the sake of increasing in-person is not a plan. We want to have a system to address the students who have fallen behind due to the pandemic both in academic progress and in other areas of well-being.”

Reached Tuesday, school board member Micky Bondo said she was not able to talk and deferred to other board members. The five other board members did not respond to phone calls or emails.

Reopening decisions in Maine have been left to individual school districts, and most are operating in a hybrid model due to physical distancing and safety requirements from the state. Portland is the only district in Cumberland County not offering in-person classes to 10th-through-12th-grade students.

“I think kids are struggling,” said Ann-Marie Gribbin-Bouchard, whose son, Jacob, is a senior at Portland High School. “It hurts me that emotionally, socially (they’re struggling). That’s one of the reasons I’ve started to push it more. I’ve always wanted the kids to go back, but these kids are struggling and it’s very sad. I just think they need to get back to – I’m just asking for a hybrid. The kids really need to get back.”

Jacob Bouchard, 18, said it’s hard to stay motivated working remotely and he worries about how ready he will be for college next year. He’s also heard from friends who are struggling with the isolation.

“A bunch of my friends have been going through some stuff,” Bouchard said. “It’s important for them to be with their friends. We haven’t been back for like a year and my friends are really struggling with just everything, like day-to-day stuff. They’re always worrying about something new.”

Many surrounding school districts have been bringing high school students to school in-person at least a few days per week and offering remote-only options for those who wish to stay remote. Christina Gerber, the mother of a sophomore and a senior at Portland High, is a social worker at Scarborough High School, where students are in-person two days per week based on A/B cohorts.

“It can be done. It’s very possible,” Gerber said. “Half the kids come Monday and Tuesday and half the kids come Thursday and Friday. It’s very doable. We’ve been doing it the entire school year.”

Carrie Foster, president of the Portland Education Association, said the teachers union is “always ready to represent members in collaborative conversation with the district.”

“Of course the health and safety of staff and students is our primary concern, but if there are ways to start increasing in-person time that fully comply with all health and safety requirements, our educators’ professional experience and knowledge is vital to informing how that could happen and we look forward to being part of that conversation,” Foster said in an email.

Not all parents and students are frustrated by the lack of in-person classes. While online classes can be difficult, Cristiano Antonio, 15, a sophomore at Portland High, prefers remote, saying it gives him more time for homework. He also likes the convenience of little things like being able to get a snack in the middle of the day.

He said his mother doesn’t care whether he’s attending remote or in person.

“As long as I’m still in school, that’s the only thing that really matters to her,” Antonio said. “She wants me to go to school and get an education, that’s it.”

In October, Botana said staffing constraints and the district’s decision to exercise an abundance of caution around physical distancing for older students were reasons 10th- through 12th-graders would remain in remote classes while younger students were allowed to come in person two days per week.

In November, the district announced plans to move 10th- through 12th-graders to more in-person learning after Thanksgiving then suddenly reversed course the Friday before the change was scheduled to take place, around the same time hundreds of people had signed a petition started by Portland High students calling for the district to put a stop to the plans for more in-person learning. The petition voiced concerns about increasing in-person learning at the same time some families were traveling for the holiday and as cases were increasing around the state.

Audrey Watson, the student body president at Portland High and one of four students who started the petition, said this week she couldn’t speak to whether many students want to see more in-person learning.

“At this point people have kind of had to come to terms with the fact that it’s just a lost year and it’s not going to be the same,” Watson said. “We can’t really get our hopes up. That’s kind of the consensus of all the seniors. It would be awesome to see each other one last time before we graduated. I’m sure that’s the goal of the administration, but no one really has their hopes up for the rest of the year.”


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