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Portland High Schools — Still Mostly Remote — Plan To Add Some In-Person Instruction

Tom Porter
Maine Public file
The exterior of Portland High School, seen Dec. 20, 2012.

Across Maine, almost all public schools have been able to open for at least some level of in-person learning — but in the state’s largest city, most high schoolers are still learning remotely.

But Portland school officials say they’re planning to bring students back into classrooms, at least part-time, by the end of the year.

Portland High School Senior Gabe Russell says it’s hard to feel connected to school when it’s all on a laptop. In English class, for example, he says he misses the engaging back-and-forth discussions that just don’t translate on a screen.

“It’s kind of depressing. It’s just an easy class — you go in, listen for 20 minutes. Then you get an assignment, you do it, and you’re done for the day. It’s just not enough,” he says.

Since the fall, 10th-12th graders in the district have largely been learning remotely, with only select opportunities at an in-person learning center.

Erin Brennan, whose son is a Portland High junior, says she and other parents have begun a renewed effort to push district officials to change that model after seeing the academic and emotional toll that the situation has taken on students.

“I think what’s getting lost in this is, they’re losing educational opportunity. But their emotional states are just being crushed. And every single parent will tell you that,” she says.

In a statement, the Portland school district says it is looking at increasing in-person classroom time for 10th-12th graders. And while there’s no specific timeline on when that will occur, the district says it plans “to make every effort to enable all of our students to attend school in-person for at least part of the week before this school year ends.”

The district says that with cases declining and more testing availability, it’s more feasible now to bring students back.

“The district had developed a plan to bring students back right after the Thanksgiving break, but spiking case counts and concerns raised by staff forced us to cancel those plans. The current decrease in cases and the broader availability of testing, on top of existing layers of protections, make it possible to restart this effort at this time,” the statement says. “We believe it is safe to cautiously move forward at this point even without vaccinations of our educational staff, for which there is unfortunately no specific timetable at this time. To enhance safety when in-person learning opportunities increase, we are exploring regularly testing students and faculty.”

Several Portland parents say they hope the district will return to at least a hybrid model, similar to what’s been implemented in cities such as Lewiston and South Portland.

District officials say they plan to take up the issue at their next school board meeting, on Feb. 23, and will also meet to discuss it with staff and students over the next few weeks.

The Maine Department of Education says that evidence continues to show that transmission of the virus is less likely to occur within schools than in the general population. The U.S. CDC is expected to release new guidelines for reopening schools this week.