Mar. 29—Elementary and middle school students in Portland Public Schools will return to classrooms four days per week with a target start date at the end of April.
Most students are currently attending in-person two days per week for a shorter, five hour day. Under the new plans, the length of the school day will remain the same and Wednesdays will continue to be used for targeted support for students and staff professional development.
Individual schools will communicate specifics to families this week. The goal is to have all students back four days per week starting April 26, said Superintendent Xavier Botana in a letter to families Friday.
"We strongly believe that increased in-person time is a powerful intervention to address the opportunity gaps and overall mental health challenges that have been heightened by the pandemic," Botana said. "We are happy that the decreased incidence of COVID and an increase in vaccinations and testing make this expansion of in-person instruction possible at this time."
The decision comes as schools around Maine, many of which have been operating in hybrid models during the coronavirus pandemic, are looking at how and when to add more in-person time. Several have cited the state's requirement that students adhere to three feet of physical distancing as the biggest barrier to adding more in-person time and on Monday more than 50 lawmakers, mostly Republicans, sent a letter to the Maine Department of Education and Maine CDC asking that the requirement for three feet of distance between students be rescinded.
Kelli Deveaux, a spokeswoman for Maine DOE, said Maine's guidance has allowed schools to stay open for at least some in-person instruction all year, unlike schools in many other parts of the country. The Mills administration has also taken other steps to help schools increase in-person learning, including prioritizing school staff for vaccinations, purchasing 250,000 rapid antigen tests for schools and childcare providers and dedicating more than $320 million in federal relief funding to schools.
"Given that Maine's school guidance is aligned with federal guidance, we urge legislators to direct their concerns to the U.S. CDC for its public health experts to consider as they continue to take into account the latest science on keeping school communities safe," Deveaux said.
Portland has been using six feet of distance between students at the middle and high schools, as the U.S. CDC had called for in earlier guidance, but will be able to increase in-person time for middle school students due to a recent change that allows students in high transmission communities to be three feet apart as long as they are able to stay in defined cohorts for the full day.
High schools in Portland announced plans last week to bring students back for two days of in-person learning in early April and will be sticking with six feet of distance between students because their schedules do not allow for students to stay in the same cohorts throughout the day.
Although the Maine Department of Education currently lists every county as "green," meaning the risk of COVID-19 spread is low and in person instruction is possible as long as safety requirements are followed, the U.S. CDC lists Cumberland County as well as several others in Maine as having high transmission rates.
"Given this data and the inability to maintain cohorts at the high schools, we will be maintaining the six-foot distance," said Tess Nacelewicz, communications coordinator for the district, in an email Monday.
About 730 preK-8 students in Portland are currently enrolled in Remote Academy, the district's fully remote option. For now most students will not be able to move in or out of Remote Academy due to staffing constraints and limits on how many students can be accommodated for more in-person instruction, but moves will be considered on a case-by-case basis. There are about 4,500 elementary and middle school students in the district total.
Several parents said they are excited to see more in-person time, even if the adjustment might be difficult at first.
Krista Donoghue, whose daughter is in fifth grade at East End Community School, said she generally feels good about increasing in-person time though her daughter is a little anxious about the easing of restrictions.
"She's gotten more engrained with the protocols for COVID. I hear her say things like, 'Oh, we're too close together,' and things like that," Donoghue said. "She is nervous about it."
Hodan Mohamed, who has two children at East End and one at Lyman Moore Middle School, said she wants to see four days per week of in-person time, but it also has her feeling a little scared. "I want it and I'm scared at the same time," she said. "The reason I want it is, two of them are doing great, but one of them, the middle school one, she is doing her work but she isn't focused on her work."
Mohamed, who is in adult education classes, said she has been able to manage supervising her children while doing her own school work but it will be easier for her and them if they are in school more. "It's beneficial for the parents and also the kids," she said.
Margaret Kelsey, whose son attends King Middle School, said while she is grateful to see the move to four days per week of in-person learning, she is also wondering why it will take several more weeks to implement and why the district cannot move to five days per week of in-person time. "I'm really glad everything is opening," Kelsey said. "I'm thankful for teachers and how hard they've worked. The question is, 'Why are we not going back five days? Why is it taking as long as it is to transition if we already knew we were going to be moving towards this?'"
As a single parent who works, Kelsey said it has been hard to respond to her son's needs during remote learning. "Kids are really missing out and there's little to no way we can really catch them up, so any amount of time our kids can get back full-time helps," Kelsey said. "And it doesn't just help our kids, it helps our whole state economy."
Rosie Lenehan, whose children are in second and fifth grades at Ocean Avenue Elementary and who works as a teacher in another district, said she understands the complexities of trying to change schedules and is happy Portland's plan will allow for most staff to have received at least one vaccination, if not both, before more students are in classrooms.
"I'm really happy with how the year has gone in Portland and I'm excited about bringing them back four days," Lenehan said. "That means teachers won't have the whole remote piece to worry about and and kids won't have remote days. They can just focus on their time at school. Those are their best days of the week."