Portland Superintendent Xavier Botana highlighted concerns about chronic absenteeism and academic struggles as reasons to increase in-person learning for high school students Tuesday night but said the district also faces challenges as it tries to work through ways to bring students back into classrooms.

Most Portland high school students in grades 10 through 12 currently take classes remotely with access to in-person support through an afternoon “learning center,” but as coronavirus case numbers have fallen around the state in recent weeks, some parents and students have been pushing for the district to re-evaluate that model and add in-person instruction time.

On Tuesday, Botana presented the district’s most up-to-date plans for increasing in-person time, which would include four hours of in-person time spread over two days at Portland and Deering high schools and four to five hours of in-person time, depending on grade level, at Casco Bay High School. During a presentation to school board members and the public, Botana highlighted increases in chronic absenteeism and course failures as reasons why it is important for the district to consider adding in-person instruction.

Looking at high school attendance by race, students in most groups have seen increases in chronic absenteeism this year, according to data Botana presented Tuesday night. “I think there is reason to believe our attendance at the upper grades is being influenced by the fact there is relatively little in-person instruction,” he said.

The number of course failures also has increased. For 10th- through 12th-grade students at Portland High, the percent of courses for which students earned credits in fall 2019 was 82 percent compared to 79 percent in fall 2020. At Deering High School the percent of courses for which students earned credit was 87 percent in fall 2019 compared to 86 percent in fall 2020.

School board members Tuesday night mostly asked questions. Some expressed support for the plan and for increasing in-person instruction time.

“For me personally, while I support this plan and I appreciate the difficulty in giving us specifics because of the many moving parts, I still see this as a very bland adding time just for the sake of adding time,” board member Roberto Rodriguez said. “I don’t have a problem with that, because I think it helps us set up for September, where the picture should be way more favorable to have all students back in schools.”

Board member Adam Burk, who said he has in general been among the most conservative of board members in their approaches to in-person schooling, said he also supports the superintendent moving ahead with the plan. To students who said they want to see more in-person learning, Burk said he hears them and “while we won’t immediately open schools tomorrow, I hear you.”

There is no timeline for when the proposal for more in-person time might be put into place, and Botana said Tuesday that there are a number of challenges associated with making it work, including CDC guidance that calls for 6 feet of distancing, small and uneven classroom sizes, the lack of a remote-only option at the high school level and the number of staff who have requested accommodations to work remotely.

During two public comment periods Tuesday night, more than 30 parents and students had spoken in support of seeing in-person instruction time for 10th- through 12th-graders as of 11 p.m., while about five people had expressed reservations or concerns.

Botana and Assistant Superintendent Melea Nalli said they also held a focus group session with multilingual families, from whom they heard similar concerns about a lack of learning and worries that their children are falling behind. “It’s nuanced, but I would say they share the concern about the damage that this pandemic has brought to their children’s education and they want us to do more and better,” Botana said.

Jessica Townsend, a social worker in Yarmouth schools and the mother of a middle school student at Lincoln Middle School and a junior at Casco Bay High School, said her family opted to have both children learn remotely until January, when her middle school daughter returned to the district’s hybrid model and is now in-person two days per week.

“The shift has been profound to watch – reduced depression, increased engagement as a student and even excitement with learning,” Townsend said. “Her social confidence has returned. Without a doubt, the gains are exponential, even with masks and social distancing. I’m very hopeful my son will have the same opportunity to return to hybrid in-school learning at Casco Bay High School as soon as possible.”

Kosta Nedeljkovic, the sophomore class president at Portland High School, said many of his peers, even students who normally look for a way to get out of class, are fed up and want to have in-person classes at least two days per week. Nedeljkovic also expressed frustration that he spends as much time at sports’ practice on a normal day as he does in class right now. “I feel the athlete is coming before the student and I feel that is not OK,” he said. “We need to be prepared to go to college. I have no plans on playing basketball in college or the NBA, but certainly I am getting more support to follow that direction than I am to go to college with the current system.”

Anja Franck, a sophomore at Deering High School, said the past year has been difficult and the lack of time to socialize has contributed to depression and anxiety among students. “I’m saddened by how much I took school for granted,” Franck said. “I now realize the stability and security it brought to my life. I say this for myself and my classmates: we need an opportunity to go back, to feel empowered by our community, to laugh at stupid jokes. … This isn’t something we want. It’s a need for many and an absence in our lives that is so heavy.”

Rachel Pargeter, the mother of a sophomore and a senior at Portland High, said she did not think teachers or students who feel uncomfortable should be required to do so. “If there’s no Remote Academy, we can’t force everyone to go back and make another difficult transition in the middle of the spring,” she said. “I have one student who would come back and I have one student who is thriving in remote learning. So it’s not difficult for everybody. Some people actually prefer it.”

Almost no teachers or staff spoke Tuesday night. Olivia Bean, a teacher at Portland High, said she is frustrated with the push for more in-person learning and said teacher and student input should be weighted more than parent input. Increasing in-person time will also make it harder for teachers to continue offering synchronous classes and doing them well, she said.

“Cases are where they are because we’ve followed the precautions we’ve followed. We have had a number of cases. The number would be even larger if there were more students,” Bean said.

She said students are not following all the requirements of wearing masks and staying 6 feet apart and that there is not enough space in classrooms to allow for the proper distancing.

“There’s a pandemic everywhere. No one is going to do well academically,” Bean said. “Everyone is going to fail their AP tests. It just is what it is. The whole situation sucks.”

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