PORTLAND —  A parents group wants to know why Portland high schools can’t plan to offer more than 4-4½ hours a week of in-person instruction to their sophomores, juniors and seniors when other high schools in the area are doing so.

Grades 10-12 at Portland’s three high schools have received 100% remote instruction this school year because of the pandemic, but the superintendent said a plan is being discussed to get those students back to the classrooms for at least four hours over two days.

“The consensus of the group is we are still frustrated with what the superintendent is planning,” said Michael Podolsky, whose son is a junior at Portland High School.

“We are having a tough time understanding why the in-person time is so limited, and we are disappointed our kids can’t have equity,” said Poldolsky, a member of Back to School Portland. “Other schools, even in Cumberland County, have figured out a way to get kids in person at least two days a week. I don’t understand why that model can’t be implemented in Portland.”

The Facebook group with 339 members as of Monday formed a couple of weeks ago in protest of Superintendent Xavier Botana’s proposal for Casco Bay High School sophomores, juniors and seniors to attend school in person 4.5 hours a week over two days and for those students at Deering and Portland high schools to attend in person four hours a week over two days.

In comparison, most high school students in Freeport, Gorham, South Portland, Scarborough, Westbrook, Yarmouth and Lewiston are attending at least two days of school in person, with the remaining instruction remote. Botana points out that even when learning remotely, Portland students are learning together. Other districts may have some in-person learning, but when those students are working remotely it is up to teachers whether they are learning synchronously or are on their own, he said.

Before the pandemic, all Portland K-12 students received 30 hours of in-person instruction per week. Synchronous remote learning in Portland ranges from 11 hours for elementary school level to 14 hours for middle schoolers and 12 at the high school.

Botana said he would like to see more in-person instruction for the high school students, but that social distancing guidelines and other pandemic concerns, including the prevalence of the spread of the virus among high school students, prevent that. Over the school year, there have been 74 cases of the virus at the high school level, causing 539 individuals to quarantine. As of Feb. 26, nine of those cases were still active.

“The administration and the board share a commitment to making that happen but must do so in a way that ensures that we keep staff and students safe,” Botana told the Forecaster. “We continue to work through the concerns that staff and students have raised about the proposed plan, but do believe it is the most viable option that we are considering at this time.”
The plan is being vetted with school leaders, staff and the Portland Education Association, and administrators are scheduled to meet with student representatives this week to “understand their concerns and get their ideas on how to make the plan work most effectively,” Botana said.
Carrie Foster, president of the Portland Education Association, said the majority of the staff at high school support working with the district to try to find a way to return students to the classroom while meeting health and safety requirements.
“Our educators are working really hard, they miss the students, even when they see them on screens, and they want to be back,” Foster said. “The requirements are set by the CDC so we do have to work around that, but we feel that the people best positioned to identify where there might be issues – and then help find workable solutions – are the people on the ground.  We’re glad to be in that process with the district.”
Once the plan is finalized, it will be implemented, Botana said, but until then, updates will be given at every school board meeting
Holly Sheehan, whose son, Daniel Niles, is a sophomore at Portland High School, said she is frustrated there is no timeline for implementation.

“The fact they are taking no action to make in-person learning happen, or very little, in unconscionable,” Sheehan said.

Niles said that “online, learning is not school.”

“At school, students learn material first hand from a teacher. It feels like I am teaching myself geometry, AP history, chemistry, English,” Niles said. “It is lonely work and as the year has gone on school has only gotten more depressing and impossible.”

Niles said he has only been in the school building five times in the last year.

“It is apparent that the administration no longer cares about their 10-12 grade students because otherwise we would be getting the same education as every other grade level in Portland,” Niles said. “They have in-person school two days a week. This is not equitable. We need help and no one is listening.”

Podolsky said the district needs to do better because “kids are struggling with remote learning.” His son has to spend his entire school day staring at a screen, he said, and he “is less engaged with his learning.”

Podolsky also is concerned about remote learning’s impact on students’ mental health and wellbeing.

“You are not getting the full experience schools should offer, or even the partial experience other kids are experiencing,” Podolsky said.

With online learning, Niles said, there is no group work or lively classroom discussions.

In a Feb. 19 letter to the Board of Education, Botana wrote the challenges in bringing students in grades 10-12 back to school for more in-person instruction “continues to be complicated in PPS by such factors as the small size of many classrooms, the district’s commitment to maintaining a 6-foot physical distance consistent with CDC guidelines and the large number of high school teachers with approved accommodations that prevent them from working with students in person. Additionally, unlike grades PK-9, the district has not established a Remote Academy option for students in grades 10-12.”

This doesn’t sit well with Podolsky.

“All I heard at the meeting from the district is why we can’t do it,” Podolsky said. “There was no talk about how we can do it make it happen.”

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