The Portland school board heard details of a fall reopening plan Tuesday night that calls for universal masking for all students indoors and on school buses, pooled testing in grade levels where students aren’t eligible for COVID-19 vaccination and a very limited remote-only option.

The plan presented by Superintendent Xavier Botana drew little reaction from the public at Tuesday’s meeting, which was the first in-person school board meeting to be held since March 2020. The board, meanwhile, had a chance to ask questions and is expected to vote on the plan Aug. 17. That meeting also will include a public hearing.

“As we indicated back in the spring our intent is to return to five days per week for all students and I’m happy to report that is in fact our plan today,” Botana said, stressing that there is a need for virus-mitigating factors and that the plan will evolve based on more information and the latest public health guidance.

Tuesday’s meeting came as districts around Maine are deciding how to respond to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state recommendation that everyone in K-12 schools wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status. On Monday, the Lewiston School Committee rejected a motion to require masks in schools and approved a motion that makes mask-wearing optional.

Portland’s plan calls for universal masking for all students in grades pre-K through 12 indoors and on school buses. Masks will not be required outdoors. Staff will be asked to wear masks whenever they are present with students indoors. Masks will be optional for vaccinated staff in other indoor, adult-only settings while unvaccinated staff will be expected to wear masks indoors at all times.

The plan also calls for participation in a state pooled testing program, which allows for group testing of nasal swab samples collected from students and staff to quickly identify positive cases. The testing would be used in kindergarten through sixth grade, since those students are ineligible for vaccination, and possibly pre-K.

Participation in pooled testing is voluntary and students who don’t participate but are deemed close contacts of a person who tests positive would have to quarantine for 10 days, during which they could complete assignments at home, though there would be no formal instruction from teachers. Otherwise the plan calls for a limited remote option that would be available only to students with a verified medical condition.

Questions from the board Tuesday night focused on pooled testing, masking and vaccinations.

Board member Aura Russell-Bedder asked whether the district has considered a vaccination mandate for staff, especially since they will be working with young children who don’t have the option to get vaccinated. Botana said the district isn’t considering it at this point but will look at a mandate as more information becomes available about vaccination rates among staff.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services will be collecting vaccination rates among staff from districts next month and plans to start publicly posting those rates mid-September.

“The ZIP code level data looks good for Portland,” Botana said. “I think a significant number of our population is vaccinated and as we get better data we will have a better sense of whether (a mandate) is necessary or if it would add anything.”

Only two people spoke on the district’s fall reopening plans during public comment Tuesday. Both were parents who expressed concerns about students wearing masks.

“What I’ve seen is I’m having more issues with kids with mental health issues,” said Stacey Hang, a parent of a Portland High School student and a school nurse in a different district. “They already struggle with social media. They don’t know how to talk to people. They don’t know how to make eye contact. And now we have covered their faces so now they don’t necessarily know how to make regular interactions or read a room.”

Amber Shertz, who has two children in elementary school, encouraged the board to let parents make decisions on whether their children wear masks. “At this point it has been long enough,” Shertz said. “Our kids are … not handling school well. They’re disengaging. They’re losing their education because they don’t care and they’re angry.”

School board member Adam Burk asked what impact masking has on students and whether there is a connection to their social and emotional health.

The pandemic overall has had a tremendous impact on students’ mental and emotional health, but district physician Dr. Gita Rao said she didn’t know of any studies specifically focused on the impact of masks. “I think prioritizing the in-school return is the utmost priority and masking is one of those things we need to do as a layer in order to be in person full-time, especially because distancing cannot be perfect to get all the students back in,” Rao said.

In other news Tuesday, the board also approved a remote meeting policy that will allow it to continue to hold hybrid meetings in the future. Board members would be allowed to participate remotely under specific circumstances, such as a declared emergency, and members of the public could participate remotely in addition to in-person.

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