Enas Alharbi was first in line to drop off her children at Presumpscot Elementary School Tuesday morning, having arrived about half an hour early for the first day of school.

“I’m excited,” said Alharbi, who has four students in Portland Public Schools.

Hybrid learning was a challenge last year and with plans to go to school herself this fall, Alharbi is eager to see her children – two attend Presumpscot, one is at Ocean Avenue Elementary and the other goes to Lyman Moore Middle School – return to full-time in-person learning for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020.

“It was bad,” Alharbi said. “They need that social interaction with others. Staying home doing nothing, it was not good at all.”

Tuesday was the first day of the 2021-22 school year for the roughly 6,500 students in Portland Public Schools. Many schools around the state are also returning to in-person learning this week at the same time Maine is seeing a late summer surge in coronavirus cases.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported 475 new COVID-19 cases over a three-day period on Tuesday, bringing the seven-day average of daily new cases to 262, compared to a daily average of around 80 one month ago.

Second-grader Mona MilNeil holds her mother, Jessica MilNeil’s, hand while waiting to enter East End Community School for the first day of class. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

In response, schools have implemented mask policies, many are participating in a state-run pooled testing program and vaccinations are being encouraged for eligible students, although there is still no vaccine for those under age 12.

Portland Superintendent Xavier Botana said the first day went well Tuesday with the district following reopening protocols the school board approved on Aug. 17. Those include a universal masking policy indoors, regardless of vaccination status, and as much distancing as possible. The district also plans to participate in pooled testing for kindergarten through sixth grade.

‘THRILLED TO HAVE STUDENTS BACK’

“Across the board, staff were genuinely thrilled to have students back in school and most of the students I spoke to felt the same way,” said Botana, who spent the day visiting high school and elementary schools. “It was awesome to see our schools buzzing with student and staff activity for the first time in a long time.”

The return to school this year marks the first time since the start of the pandemic that virtually all Portland students will be learning in-person full time. The district started last year in hybrid mode with elementary and middle school students learning in-person two days per week and most high school students taking classes remotely with access to in-person support.

By the end of the year, elementary and middle school students had returned to four days per week of in-person learning and all high school students were in-person two days per week. The length of the school day was shortened but is returning to a regular 6½-hour day this year.

Last year, about 840 pre-K to eighth-grade Portland students started the year in Remote Academy, the district’s remote-only option. This year’s remote-only offering will be much more limited and only available to students with verified medical conditions that prevent them from returning to in-person learning.

Hana Ali takes a photo of her first-grade daughter, Mellina Dibir, before she enters East End Community School for the first day of class. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Just 12 students district-wide have been approved for enrollment in Remote Academy, which has two teachers assigned to it.

Between 85 to 89 percent of eligible students in Portland Public Schools are vaccinated, according to a state dashboard that estimates student vaccination rates, and the district is expecting to have staff vaccination data available for next Tuesday’s school board meeting.

The state also is planning to collect data on staff vaccination rates and has said it would share those by mid-September. Unlike last school year, when the Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Education tracked all COVID cases in schools, the state will only track and share outbreaks this year. That information will be posted on the Department of Education’s website and updated weekly on Thursdays.

Portland Public Schools, meanwhile, will continue its practice from last school year of weekly reporting of cumulative cases.

NERVES AND EXCITEMENT

There was a feeling of excitement at schools Tuesday, and many parents, students and staff said they were happy to be back, though some also were a little nervous.

At Presumpscot, Principal Angie Taylor said outdoor eating and learning will be a big part of the school’s strategy. Presumpscot faces an extra challenge with construction limiting the amount of outdoor space available, but the number of grades eating and at recess also will be limited at any one time to ensure students can still space out.

Third-grader Cameron Toulon puts on her mask before entering East End Community School for the first day of class. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“I feel confident,” Taylor said. “We spent all last year here. It wasn’t full time, but it was close enough and we had all the kids by the end of the year.”

At East End Community School, chalk marks on the pavement indicated where students should stand to achieve 6 feet of separation as they lined up to enter the building. Parents and students wore masks outside as they said their goodbyes Tuesday morning.

“I am excited to see the kids and to continue the work we’ve been doing and learning,” said Kelly Mascolo, an instructional math coach at East End. “I do feel safe. I feel safe going into the building. It’s (about) continuing wearing a mask, washing our hands and keeping our distance, and being respectful of that space.”

“I feel very good and I have a lot of trust in the school and the school administration,” said Jessica MilNeil, whose daughter, Mona, is in second grade at East End. “I feel like they did a really excellent job last year and I really trust their judgment. I know how important it is for kids to be in school, but at the same time I’m terrified.”

Mona was just over halfway through kindergarten when the pandemic hit and her mother said it’s hard to fathom starting school for the very first time with the disruptions of the past year and a half.

“It’s such a different way to experience your introduction to school,” MilNeil said. “It really changes social interactions and stuff. But honestly, the kids are so much more adaptable than we are and they’re way better at wearing masks. I feel like in my mind school is actually very low risk for transmission.”

Presumpscot Elementary School Principal Angie Taylor says outdoor eating and learning will be a big part of the school’s strategy this year. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Presumpscot fourth-grader Aleta Krajewski spent the year in Remote Academy last year. “It’s been a year and a half since I’ve been to school in-person, so I am really excited and looking forward to this year at school,” said Krajewski, who wore a bright blue KN95 mask.

“I think we’re excited but feeling nervous still,” said Aleta’s mother, Megan Keogh. “I think Presumpscot did a really good job last year. We talked to (the principal) about what happened last year and here at least I feel pretty good.”

GRATEFUL FOR MASKING

Keogh is especially grateful for the district’s mask requirement. “If they weren’t masking and taking precautions, we would be homeschooling, I guess,” she said. “I don’t know what we would do.”

Outside Deering High School, students streamed out of the front doors at dismissal time Tuesday afternoon then lingered on the front lawn catching up, many still wearing or holding on to their masks. “It was good,” said Jatisa Cortes, a freshman. “It’s a lot different than a normal school year. Everyone’s wearing masks and social distancing, so it’s not what you’d expect, but overall it was pretty good. Everyone was respectful of the rules.”

Chris Soper, a senior, was grateful to be back in-person on a full-time schedule. “We haven’t been back for so long, but it felt fine,” Soper said. “I didn’t mind the masks. You have to do what you have to do.”


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