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Portland aims to bring high school students back to the classroom, parents say it's not enough

Students in grades 10-12 at Portland and Deering High Schools have been learning remotely for more than 11 months.

PORTLAND, Maine — High school students in the Portland Public Schools system may soon be getting more in-person learning time. According to a memo from Superintendent Xavier Botana, the district looks to bring back students in grades 10-12 twice a week for four hours a week in total. 

Sophomores, juniors, and seniors at Portland High School and Deering High School have been learning remotely for more than 11 months. Many parents now say that the district's plan doesn't go far enough to increase in-person learning. 

"All we want is a hybrid, that's all we're asking for. A hybrid just like everybody else," Ann-Marie Gribbin-Bouchard, a parent of two Portland High School students, said. 

The majority of students in the Portland Public Schools system have been learning remotely for months. Freshman students have also been back learning as part of that hybrid model. 

"At this point we don't really care how it's done. We want the teachers there, but if the teachers cannot be there because of an accommodation, they can teach remote. As long as the kids are in school. It's really affecting them emotionally," parent Brian Bouchard said. 

According to the memo from Botana, Portland and Deering students would continue their current academic schedule with four classes remotely. The time offered in the afternoons would be a "second helping" of course material, as well as time for in-person advisory, guidance, and/or co-curricular clubs and activities. Botana said he wants to this now for a number of reasons including poor attendance for virtual learning, and the decrease in the number of cases of COVID-19.

"This plan will require significant adjustments in classroom space at Portland and Deering," Botana said in the memo. "Large common spaces such as libraries, cafeterias, gyms, study halls, etc. will be modified to accommodate groups of students who would not be able to meet in their designated classroom space. This will require significant logistical challenges for school administration and staff alike."

According to the memo, large common spaces such as libraries, cafeterias, gyms, and study halls will be used to help space the students. 

The plan was discussed at Tuesday's Portland Board of Education meeting. Many students voiced their opinions saying they would like to go back to school. One student said, "I spend most of my days in my room with my Chromebook, not motivated to do anything. It's especially hard when it feels like I don't have anyone to turn to."

Families in the district have formed the group Back to School Portland, which has gained nearly 300 members on Facebook. 

In a statement, the group said in part, "Botana's plan leaves many parents with more questions than answers. It offers no timetable for a return to the classroom. It also appears to use the proposed afternoon sessions for various activities, including advisement, individualized review and extra-curricular activities. The District has given no compelling reason for continuing to deny students what other Maine high schools are offering: substantial amounts of in-person learning and a closer-to-normal schedule of class time."

Many parents are now calling for Portland to adopt a hybrid for all students, as has been seen in many high schools across Maine. 

Currently, there is no timeline on when this potential plan will be implemented to get students in grades 10-12 back into the buildings.