Portland high school parents who have been pushing for more in-person learning time for 10th- through 12th-grade students said Friday they are disappointed with a proposal that would add some in-person time before the school year is over but has no fixed starting date attached to it.
“I am completely appalled and frustrated,” said Lou Anne Viola, whose son is a junior and whose daughter is a freshman at Casco Bay High School. Viola said her son is in AP classes and does not feel prepared to take the exams this spring. “He doesn’t feel prepared. He’s thinking, ‘Why am I even bothering trying to do this when I haven’t had the same instruction time as other people in the state?’ ” Viola said.
Parents of high school students, who have been taking classes remotely this year because of the pandemic, have recently been pushing for in-person learning as case numbers fall around the state and vaccinations increase. On Friday the Portland district released details of a plan to add in-person time for 10th- through 12th-grade students in a memorandum Superintendent Xavier Botana will be presenting to the school board Tuesday.
The plan calls for four hours per week of in-person time at the district’s two largest high schools, Portland and Deering, while students at Casco Bay High School would have 4.5 hours of in-person time also split over two days. Freshmen at all three schools have been attending in person for three hours, two days per week, all year and would continue to do so.
Several parents said Friday they were disappointed with the plan and had been hoping to see more class time or longer days of in-person instruction similar to what other school districts in the region are offering. Some voiced their frustration on a Facebook page, #BackToSchool Portland Maine, that is dedicated to discussing options for the return to in-person instruction for the city’s 10th- through 12th-graders. Portland is currently the only district in Cumberland County with no in-person classes for 10th- through 12th-graders.
“I’m really upset,” said Judy Sedgewick, whose daughter is a senior at Portland High. She said her daughter is spending a lot of time alone and her interest in going to college has diminished. “I think if you’re in with your peers and everyone is talking about their academic situations and graduation and ‘What are you going to do next year?’ – I think there’s an energy when these kids get together and I don’t see that in her.” Sedgewick said her daughter has been accepted to every college she applied to but has no interest in going.
“It’s very slow and late,” Sedgewick said of the district’s plan. “It’s a step in the right direction in that she will physically be in school but I feel like she should be in school for academic instruction.”
Botana did not respond to phone messages or an email Friday afternoon. School board Chair Emily Figdor also did not respond to phone messages or an email. According to the superintendent’s memorandum, Portland and Deering students would continue to take classes remotely in the morning. The in-person afternoon time would be a “second helping” of each of their four classes over the course of the week as well as time for in-person advisory, guidance and co-curricular clubs and activities. Tenth- through 12th-grade students at Casco Bay would have 4.5 hours in person each week, which would include time for “crew” and “team learning experience.”
The plan will require significant adjustments in classroom space at Portland and Deering, according to the memo. Large common spaces such as libraries, cafeterias and gyms will be modified to accommodate groups of students who would not be able to meet in their designated classrooms. Many high school staff have also requested accommodations that would prevent them from teaching in-person. In those cases, students will be in person on their designated days and be taught by their assigned teacher virtually while supervised and facilitated in person by a district staff member.
Peggy Spencer, the mother of a freshman and a sophomore at Portland High, said she has watched her 10th-grade son go from a successful freshman year to looking at her and saying, “When can I be done with high school?”
“I don’t want that to be interpreted that the teachers are not working hard, because I believe they are with what they’ve been given, but it’s not clicking,” Spencer said. She questioned whether it makes sense for her older son to take the bus from their home in North Deering to the high school downtown – a 20- or 30-minute ride one way – for two 40-minute class sessions twice per week. “Is he going to travel by bus for an hour to be in school for 80 minutes? That’s not even realistic. It’s not a good use of their time,” Spencer said. She said she wants to see the district match what other high schools in the area are doing.
“Cohorts A and B go to school Monday and Thursday or Tuesday and Friday,” Spencer said. “That would be sufficient. That would have been sufficient back in November. Now that the numbers are going down, it should be more than that and I think other schools are striving to get their kids in school for more time than what currently exists.”
Teresa Lagrange, whose son is a senior at Portland High, said she is also disappointed by the proposal. “We just want equity for our kids,” Lagrange said. “We want them to have the same opportunity as kids in other districts in the state.”
The discussion around in-person learning comes amid improving public health metrics. On Friday, the state’s seven-day average of new coronavirus cases stood at 141, compared to a record high of 625 for the week ending Jan. 15. Every county in Maine is currently “green” in the state’s color-coded school reopening advisory system, meaning in-person instruction is possible as long as schools continue to adhere to health and safety requirements.
According to the memo, the primary reason 10th- through 12th-graders in Portland have been remote is because the district committed to 6 feet of physical distancing between students, which could not be easily accomplished with all students back in session at one time, even in a hybrid format. In November, the district had plans to increase in-person time for high school students, but then reversed the plans due to an increase in cases and staff concerns.
There is currently no date attached to the planned expansion of in-person learning, though the memo does list some next steps. Next week, a district level health and safety task force will meet to discuss staff concerns, including thoughts and suggestions that have come up through a Portland Education Association survey. Carrie Foster, president of the teacher’s union, did not respond to an email Friday afternoon seeking the union’s position on the proposal.
The superintendent has asked student board representatives to help convene a group of students for a focus group discussion on the plan, and senior district leadership will be meeting with each school leadership team. The district is also vetting potential providers of pooled COVID-19 testing, which would provide an additional mitigation strategy and allow for rapid identification of new cases.