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Amid decreasing COVID-19 cases, Portland schools weigh a return to in-person learning

Portland Public Schools is exploring ways to enhance safety when in-person learning opportunities increase, including regularly testing students and faculty
Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

PORTLAND, Maine — Portland Public Schools (PPS) is considering increasing in-person learning for students in grades 10 through 12, according to district spokesperson Tess Nacelewicz.

Nacelewicz told NEWS CENTER Maine there is no specific timeline, but the district hopes to have all students attend in-person classes for “at least part of the week before this school year ends.”

She said PPS had developed a plan to bring students back 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,” Nacelewicz said. “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.”

Nacelewicz said the district is exploring ways to enhance safety when in-person learning opportunities increase, including regularly testing students and faculty, which she says the district plans to discuss at the Feb. 23 school board meeting.

“Superintendent Xavier Botana and his leadership team will be meeting with students and staff in the coming weeks as they continue to explore avenues for increasing in-person instructional opportunities for students,” she said.

In PPS’s latest COVID-19 update on Feb. 5, there were 13 positive cases and about 60 close contacts across the school system.

RELATED: 175 additional COVID-19 cases reported in Maine Thursday; no additional deaths

Cumberland County was moved to green in the Maine Department of Education's (DOE) latest update, citing the new case rate per 10,000 people dropping by 25 percent, and the positivity rate dipping below the statewide average. 

The DOE's color-coded county rating system classifies counties’ relative risk of COVID-19 transmission. The color-coded system was implemented at the end of July to help give schools guidance on how to safely restart school amid the pandemic. All 16 counties got the initial go-ahead from the State, all receiving a "green" designation, though many districts opted for a hybrid model.

Here's how the classifications work:

  • Green: relatively low risk of COVID-19 spread. Schools can consider in-person instruction with required health and safety measures.
  • Yellow: elevated risk of COVID-19 spread. Schools should consider hybrid instructional models to try to limit the number of people in classrooms at the same time.
  • Red: high risk of COVID-19 spread. In-person instruction is not advised.

The DOE said these designations are made out of an abundance of caution and for the consideration of school administrative units in their decisions to deliver instruction.

The next update from the DOE is scheduled for Friday, Feb. 12.