Amber Hoxha, who organized Wednesday’s rally, speaks in favor of getting students back to school full time. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

SCARBOROUGH — A group of families from southern Maine school districts rallied in Memorial Park Wednesday to call for a return to full in-person learning around the state.

“We have been working tirelessly since early February to get answers and provide support to our community to get the kids in school more often,” said Amber Hoxha, a Scarborough parent. “Everyday is getting harder and harder and I feel like I’m losing more and more hope everyday in the situation.”

Hoxha and another Scarborough parent, Winnie Lee, said their children are in-person 2 ½ days per week and they want to see a return to full in-person learning. “It’s just really challenging and we want Gov. (Janet) Mills to listen to us and help us,” Lee said.

The Maine Department of Education isn’t tracking instructional models by school district but many remain in hybrid. According to the Return to Learn Tracker, a project of the American Enterprise Institute and Davidson College, about 6 percent of the districts in Maine were fully remote, 76 percent were hybrid and 18 percent were fully in-person as of April 19.

Lindsay Crete, a spokeswoman for Mills, said in an email Wednesday that Maine will continue with its existing approach to school reopenings and will re-examine its requirements if the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention makes further adjustments.

“While Maine’s framework is intended to assist each school unit in determining their capacity and resources when considering instructional models, these decisions and the responsibility to meet these requirements ultimately rest with the superintendent and school boards, who are best suited to determine locally their capacity, such as staffing and the availability of space to meet the requirements,” Crete said.

About 25 people gathered in the park Wednesday representing school districts that included Scarborough, South Portland and Gorham. They held signs that read “5 Days Like Every Other District” and “Gov. Mills We Are Not Okay.”

Laura Foss, whose twins are in kindergarten in South Portland, said they often end up in tears on days at home and she is equally frustrated trying to oversee their remote learning. She hired a retired teacher to come into their home two days per week this year, but said many families are not fortunate enough to be able to do the same thing.

“As a taxpayer I’m now paying $500 per week to get my children educated, just so I can keep my job,” Foss said. “For families in less fortunate situations, there isn’t access to equal education. Public education should be a right for all of our children.”

Hoxha said she was lucky to be able to put her career on hold and stay home with her two children when the pandemic hit. “On the other hand, I have many very close friends and family who are juggling full-time work with children at home,” she said. “I am sad, very sad, watching the children struggle and try to adapt to remote learning.”

Winnie Lee, left, of Scarborough and Laura Foss of South Portland hold signs at Wednesday’s rally in support of getting students back to school full time. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Unlike in many states around the country, most Maine schools have offered students some in-person learning all year. But some states are moving more quickly to return all students to full-time in-person instruction.

On Tuesday, Massachusetts announced it would mandate high schools to provide full-time in-person learning by May 17, following a phased-in approach to full in-person learning that started with elementary schools on April 5 and middle schools on April 28.

Crete said the Mills administration is helping schools get back to full-time learning as soon as possible by prioritizing teachers and school staff for vaccines, distributing rapid BinaxNOW tests for schools and dedicating $329 million in federal CARES Act relief to Maine schools to support learning models.

Earlier this week the administration announced a new pooled PCR testing program that will be available to schools at no cost starting next month and will allow them to easily test small groups of staff and students at once.

“The Mills administration recognizes the importance of in-person instruction for a child’s social, emotional and educational growth, and shares the goal of getting those students who are not already in the classroom back for full-time learning as soon as possible,” Crete said.

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