Kris Reddout, a 5th grade teacher, attends a Utah Safe Schools Mask-In urging the governor's leadership in school reopening during a rally Thursday, July 23, 2020, in Salt Lake City. Credit: Rick Bowmer / AP

PORTLAND, Maine — As many as 269 educators and  employees in the Portland Public Schools have requested to work remotely this fall, according to the district’s teachers union, and others are pushing back against a plan to return to classrooms ahead of a Wednesday meeting where school officials are expected to finalize a reopening plan.

District officials have pitched a comprehensive plan to return to classrooms on Sept. 14, after the Maine Department of Education and Center for Disease Control and Prevention cleared them to do so.

But about 21 percent of district employees have asked for a waiver from returning to their school buildings, citing heightened risks from the coronavirus and childcare conflicts among their concerns.

Schools officials have contracted with Falmouth-based KMA Human Resources Consulting, a private firm, to help determine which Portland teachers may work remotely and which ones should return to the classroom this fall.

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Barbara Stoddard, human resources director for the district, declined to discuss specifics of the contract but said the firm isn’t authorized to make “any determinations or final decisions.”

The school district is legally required to review accommodations for employees under the Americans with Disabilities Act. It is unclear what recourse teachers have if their requests for more flexibility during the pandemic are denied. An email sent to teachers by the union president said that each request “will be decided on a case-by-case basis,” but “there is a good chance that you will not be able to secure one of the [limited] remote teaching slots” if the request “is due to childcare or having a high-risk household member.”

The Portland School Board votes Wednesday night on a plan that would return “as many students as possible to in-person learning,” responding to the state’s color-coded health advisory system. The plan would cover K-12 schools in the district and involve mandatory face coverings, teachers “cohorting together” and classroom redesigns to ensure students stay at least three feet apart to help mitigate transmission of the virus.

If passed, students would begin the school year on Sep. 14 under a hybrid setting.

But many argue that a return to the school building isn’t safe. A petition to begin the first trimester remotely has collected more than 230 signatures since a parent launched it on Friday. It argues that too many educators have requested accommodations to teach remotely, “leaving huge gaps for in-person instruction,” and raises questions about the availability of substitute teachers and custodian positions. It also highlights the difficulty of ensuring that teenagers will wear masks as instructed.

The rotating cohorts of students in a hybrid model restricts capacity in schools, but doesn’t limit daily interactions between teachers and students.

“There are simply too many unanswered questions to put our children and educators at risk,” according to the petition.

Sarah Sirois has worked in Portland Public Schools for eight years, and teaches English for non-native speaking students at Deering High School. Many of her students are Black and/or Latino, populations that have been infected by the virus at disproportionately higher rates than white Mainers, and often live in homes with extended family, as is the cultural norm.

She worries the plan to reopen, which includes consolidating English-learning students in concentrated classroom settings, could compound the risk of contamination for those populations.

Sirois has requested accommodations from the district because she takes a daily steroid for moderate asthma, a condition putting her at higher risk if she becomes infected with COVID-19. She also has a child in the school district and needs flexibility if one of them returned to their classrooms.

Sirois wants to work, and feels “totally comfortable” returning to classes if they were conducted outdoors, with masks and proper social distancing, but said teachers and students could be endangered if they return to school buildings prematurely.

Maine is currently considered low-risk, but schools in other parts of the country that planned to teach in person reverted to online learning when dozens of staff members were forced to quarantine after having been potentially exposed to the disease.

The push to return to schools has created a stressful environment for teachers, obstructed creativity and hampered the learning environment, Sirois said. She wants the district to get creative with outdoor learning until the weather gets cold, and then switch to remote learning if the virus is still a threat.

“We’re just breeding stress when we could be breeding innovation and creativity,” Sirois said. “There is no more normal.”