The Portland school board unanimously approved a fall return plan Tuesday night that features numerous COVID-19 safety protocols, including universal masking for students and staff.

The vote came after several parents expressed concerns about the trajectory of the virus and the highly contagious delta variant and asked the district to consider additional measures such as masking for students outdoors, more remote learning options and reconsideration of a proposal to allow outside visitors into school buildings this year.

“I understand the community’s fear, apprehension and concern, as well as the desire to have kids back in school and learning and addressing the need for kids to have as much normalcy as possible,” school board Chair Emily Figdor said. “I feel confident this plan is based on science as we know it now and we will continue to evolve and respond to the science.”

The board adopted the plan as brought forth by Superintendent Xavier Botana. It calls for five days per week of in-person learning, universal masking for students and staff indoors, pooled testing for grades K-6, and physical distancing during eating and instruction to the extent possible.

Parents at Tuesday’s meeting praised the recommendation for universal masking but several said they want to see additional protocols in place.

Beth Rabbitt, who has two children at Lyseth Elementary School, said she was generally supportive of the plan but also sees deficiencies, including a lack of robust remote learning options for students who may end up in quarantine. She also expressed concerns about allowing outside visitors back into buildings, which was not permitted last year. Under the plan passed by the board, visitors during school hours would be limited to small numbers at a time and would only be permitted in occupied classrooms for less than 15 minutes.


“I understand the desire to be able to open up our buildings, but candidly this is not the time to have potentially unvaccinated adults from a variety of environments entering our buildings to make us feel good,” Rabbitt said. “We should be waiting until our K-6 students can be vaccinated and we get to a higher level of vaccinations before allowing other individuals in the building during the school day.”

Emily Connelly, who also has two children at Lyseth, is concerned about elementary school children returning to in-person school amid the spread of the highly contagious delta variant. “I know remote learning isn’t ideal, but that option did let my family know we were doing everything we could to protect our kids from exposure to COVID,” Connelly said. “I do wish that was an option since our kids still aren’t vaccinated.”

The plan as presented Tuesday calls for a limited remote option available only to students with a verified medical condition. Connelly supports pooled testing but questions whether the testing will be done frequently enough and she asked whether the district has considered enforcing mask-wearing outdoors.

“Right now masks are not required when students are playing outside,” she said. “That might have worked last year but with this variant it does seem like even children playing outside can transmit to one another. I was wondering if you have considered requiring masks outside?”


Close to 20 parents spoke during the public hearing with almost all of them attending virtually during what was the board’s first hybrid meeting. Some parents and residents asked whether the district would consider a vaccine mandate for staff and eligible students. The city of Portland announced over the weekend that it will require all of its employees to receive a COVID-19 vaccine or submit to weekly testing.


Bill Weber, who said he is a Portland resident but didn’t say if he had children in the district, said he is generally in favor of the fall plan but wants to see the district ensure the masks students are wearing are effective and said mandatory vaccination of staff and students should be a priority.

“I don’t think anyone can envision loosening mask requirements in the future without a fully vaccinated staff and student body,” Weber said. “As Portland city workers will soon be required to be vaccinated, it only follows that school teachers and staff should also be vaccinated.”

Botana said a potential vaccination requirement is one of the top items the district has been getting feedback on with regard to its fall plan. He said the district is in the process of gathering data on staff vaccinations, though a staff survey last spring indicated 95 percent of respondents had been vaccinated or were planning to be. The survey only drew 654 responses, which represents about 47 percent of the total number of employees.

“If the original staff survey was representative and 95 percent are vaccinated then I would say it would be unnecessary to implement a vaccination mandate,” Botana said, though he said the district is still gathering more data. As part of the data collection the district is offering a $100 incentive to anyone who proves they’re vaccinated.

More information on staff vaccination rates should be available by the next board meeting in early September. If a requirement were to be implemented, logistics such as whether staff would get paid time to go get the vaccine and whether testing would be an alternative to getting the shot, would likely need to be negotiated with labor unions.

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