PORTLAND, Maine — A school year beginning with daily symptom checks, mandatory masks, 3-foot social distance guidelines and plenty of remote instruction is a go.
The Portland school board unanimously passed a complex, comprehensive plan Wednesday to reopen public schools under a “yellow” hybrid model that involves remote and in-person instruction that varies by school and grade. The plan will begin Sep. 14, allowing instructors to adapt to the new system — which may change again with the state’s color-coded health advisory.
“I am convinced that this plan represents an innovative and effective system for delivering education that is informed by prevailing best practices and health and education. I think that’s the best we can do as a district,” said school board member Anna Trevorrow. .
School officials and community members pored over details of the plan over a remote meeting spanning two evenings and nearly 13 hours. School board chair Roberto Rodriguez said the plan was “the right thing to do for our school district” but recognized that “it would not be the right thing to do for a lot of individuals.”
“No one has a perfect solution,” board member Micky Bondo said.
Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, and the state Department of Education have cleared public schools for in-person instruction as Maine has largely contained the spread of the virus, though spikes in infection at other schools around the country serve as a warning for another surge.
Maine has maintained a test positivity rate of less that 1 percent since July 20, according to Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center data. Portland accounts for 23 of the state’s 75 new cases from July 31 to Aug. 18, according to data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
The district would operate in a hybrid status until early October, when they would transition students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade to a full return to classrooms and consider doing the same for teenagers — who are more at-risk of contamination — based on CDC guidance according to the area spread of the virus.
The district can downgrade to “red” status, which would trigger full remote instruction, at any time, said superintendent Xavier Botana, adding that he felt it was “likely” that the district would be in remote mode at various times during the year.
Botana said he had “a bias” for returning students to in-person instruction, calling it “superior” to remote learning. The mental, emotional and developmental health concerns facing students in virtual settings outweighed the threat of the virus while statewide infection rates are low.
Equity for students and families of color in the district’s coronavirus response was a chief concern in building the plan, said Botana, noting that the state still has the largest racial disparity in positive COVID-19 cases in the country. He located the issue as a larger sociological problem of “structural inequalities in our city, state and country.”
Without federal or state support to offset the loss of job-related income to keep people safe during the pandemic, it is not clear that remote instruction would be more equitable for migrant, low-income or vulnerable families, who Botana noted often work in jobs considered “essential” and are required to work in situations where they are more exposed to the virus. The district consulted focus groups including the Chamber of Commerce and large employers in the area about the coming school year.
Ange Ishimwe, a high school student in the district, said that some of her peers “use school as a safe place” which remote learning wouldn’t provide.
School administrators were almost universally praised for their diligence in building a comprehensive plan to reopen safely, but many took issue with the framework.
Sarah Obare, a teacher at Portland High School, said that the decision whether to teach schools remotely or return them to classroom settings they’re familiar with was a false binary, since no in-person school setting will be normal in a pandemic. She appreciated the discussion about safety and scheduling, but heard very little on what teaching will look like in classrooms full of restrictions, social distancing, and anxiety about contamination.
“That’s not the environment that I feel like [my child] will thrive,” Obare said.
Students in the district can individually opt out of in-person learning in favor of remote instructions, though teachers and other school employees are expected to return to school buildings unless the district approves their request for remote accommodations for health or childcare issues. As many as 269 teachers and other employees in the district have requested to work remotely.
One official said that outdoor learning could be a “cornerstone” of the plan, with several teachers permitted to hold classrooms outside. School board member Adam Burk was very encouraged with recent meetings he’s had with the district’s outside learning coordinators, calling it “not only the safest way to be together in person, but also the most engaging.”
Anna Frick, a parent in the district, praised the school’s efforts, but said the hybrid plan was a “lost opportunity” to tighten the remote learning system, calling it “inevitable” that the district would return to remote learning once the virus regains traction in the state.