The Portland school district is looking at ways to increase in-person learning for students in grades pre-K through eighth grade with the possibility of making adjustments to the current hybrid schedule this month or early next month.

The district also is continuing to evaluate ways to add in-person opportunities for students in grades 10 through 12 who are currently learning remotely with access to in-person support. “I want to reiterate that we are committed to making that happen, but it has to be in a way that is safe for students and staff,” Superintendent Xavier Botana said at a school board meeting Tuesday night.

Schools in Maine and across the country are weighing how to add more in-person learning as public health metrics improve amid the coronavirus pandemic.

At the preK-8 level in Portland, Assistant Superintendent Melea Nalli said elementary and middle schools across the district are considering options that include adding in-person time for alternating cohorts on Wednesdays, extending the school day back to the traditional 6.5 hours and adding in-person time for students who have been chronically absent or the most disengaged. Most students in preK-8 are currently at school two days per week in-person for a five-hour school day.

“We’re working through the possibilities and if we see opportunities to make incremental adjustments in March or early April we’ll do so and provide families with advance notice,” Nalli said. In general, she said the district is aiming for adjustments to be fully in place after the April break.

At the high school level, Botana said challenges remain to being able to increase in-person time, including the fact some students may not be able to attend the planned afternoon sessions due to health and safety concerns, work commitments or transportation, and the demands that would be placed on ELL staff, who are currently teaching intensive language learners in-person four days per week.

Botana said the district is planning to meet with students from all three high schools this week. “Universally, staff report hearing from students that they have significant concerns about increasing in-person instruction,” he said.

There are also plans to bring pooled testing to the high schools, either through a nasal or saliva test, which would provide additional protections. Botana said the district hopes to have the plans ready by April break and he will continue to provide updates on in-person instruction.

“I know this timeline is frustrating for some and I want to remind everyone that this year has been marked by change after change,” Botana said. He said some families have asked whether the district is planning to return next year in some form of hybrid instruction. “I want to be unequivocal that our plans at this time are to work towards five days per week of in-person instruction next year,” Botana said, though he added some health and safety precautions may need to remain.

Some high school parents in particular have been vocal about wanting to see in-person classes for 10th- through 12th-graders. About 15 parents and students spoke Tuesday night in favor of seeing more in-person.

“We as a family completely support the choice for all of our kids to have more in-person learning,” said Sarah Swan, who said she has children in first, sixth and eighth grades and a sophomore at Portland High School and a husband is a Portland High teacher.

“All I’ve seen this year is families who can afford private schools have sent their kids to private schools where they receive five days of in-person learning,” Swan said. “Furthermore, families who can afford tutoring have hired tutors. I again ask, where is the equity in all of this? The inequity is just growing.”

Adair Emmons spoke of the need to vaccinate teachers and said it would be difficult to be able to transition to a plan for more in-person learning this school year, even if teachers do get vaccinated. “Even if Biden’s new plan to push governors to prioritize teachers does have an affect on Gov. Mills, the formulation of another new plan and rollout will take weeks at least,” Emmons said.

President Biden on Tuesday called on states to prioritize vaccinating teachers and challenged states to administer at least one dose of the vaccine to all teachers by the end of March as part of his administration’s efforts to reopen more schools across the nation. While many states have prioritized school staff in vaccination plans, Maine’s current guidelines are age-based regardless of employment.

On Tuesday the board unanimously approved a resolution calling on the governor and Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention to categorize preK-12 school employees as “certain critical front-line workers” and give them immediate priority in Phase 1B in the state’s vaccine distribution plan. Similar resolutions have been approved in other districts including Brunswick, Falmouth and Yarmouth.

In other news Tuesday, the board also unanimously approved a request to put out to bid renovations at Longfellow Elementary School. The Longfellow project, budgeted at approximately $14 million, is part of the $64 million four-school Buildings for our Future bond approved by voters in 2017 for the renovation of four elementary schools. Renovations at Lyseth Elementary School are scheduled to be completed this fall while the board will be considering bid proposals for the remaining two schools, Reiche and Presumpscot, in the upcoming weeks.

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