PORTLAND, Maine — Christa Vo recognizes that district officials have worked hard to find ways to safely reopen schools. It’s “an impossible situation to figure out in a short amount of time,” she said.
But despite a detailed reopening plan for Portland Public Schools, the 34-year-old Portland mother said she’s not convinced that sending her four young children back to the classroom on Sept. 14 would be safe. Not when she lives with at-risk family members, like her grandparents and her asthmatic daughter, and not as the state tries to contain recent outbreaks spurred by the Millinocket-area wedding.
“All of us, basically, are worried about exposure,” Vo said. “We’re opting to stay as isolated as we can.”
Portland school officials gave families the choice to opt their students out of classroom instruction in favor of remote learning, but they did not anticipate that so many of them would.
As of this week, about 1,000 students in the school system have opted to not return to the classroom, according to district spokesperson Tess Nacelewicz. That figure includes approximately 600 elementary students, 250 middle schoolers, and 98 ninth graders — about 14 percent of the district’s roughly 6,750 students.
Students in grades 10 through 12 at three city high schools will begin the year almost fully remotely, per guidance from health officials who say older teens are at greater risk of being infected by coronavirus.
The Portland school board unanimously approved a complex plan last month to reopen in a hybrid model that involves remote and in-person instruction and varies by school and grade.
School board chair Roberto Rodriguez said the plan was “the right thing to do” for the school district, but recognized that it would “not be the right thing to do for a lot of individuals.”
“No one has a perfect solution,” board member Micky Bondo said.
Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, and the state Department of Education cleared all public schools for in-person instruction since Maine has largely contained the spread of the virus.
Maine’s current positivity rate for COVID-19 is .57 percent — the second-lowest in the U.S — though spikes in infection at schools that have reopened around the country serve as a warning for another surge.
In Portland, students aren’t the only ones opting out of classrooms. The district received 274 requests from teachers and others for remote accommodations and flexible work schedules this fall — more than 20 percent of district employees. Teachers whose requests are approved will staff the district’s remote learning program, though finding adequate staffing for the surge of remote learners has proven to be another juggling act, officials said.
Many teachers with health concerns were relieved to be assigned to remote instruction, because it allowed them to “protect their health as much as possible while still serving in a profession they love,” said Carrie Foster, president of the teachers’ union. Four teachers have also requested leaves of absence, according to the district’s human resources department.
Those requests have been placed into four categories by the district’s human resources team, organized by likelihood that they will be granted. Employees with disabilities or pregnancy-related conditions protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Maine Human Rights Act are the likeliest to receive accommodations.
Some question whether the ADA, a set of legal criteria determined long before COVID-19, is a useful standard. Vo has an autoimmune condition and is considered high risk by her doctor, she said, but not by the legal parameters defined in the ADA.
“If I did not have an employer who was willing to let me work from home, I would not qualify for accommodations based on what they’re considering to be high-risk,” said Vo, who works for the state.
Some teachers’ requests face steeper odds. The district is not legally required to accommodate teachers seeking remote or flexible work arrangements due to a need to care for a child whose school or place of childcare has closed for reasons due to COVID-19, according to a memo from the district’s legal counsel. The same goes for those requesting accommodations because of a high-risk family member or more general fear of contracting the virus.
In August, the Portland school system hired KMA Human Resources Consulting, a private firm based in Falmouth, to help process the high number of requests. Superintendent Xavier Botana said consultants would not independently decide who can teach remotely but would gather relevant information to help determine which accommodations are reasonable.
Vo made her decision, but knows other families who are still on the fence. She’s interested to see how the first weeks of the school year unfold. For those who do return, she hopes that teachers will focus on holding outdoor classroom settings for as long as possible, delaying the indoor conditions that promote community spread of the virus.
“I hope that it happens safely and they can move toward full return, but we’ll see,” Vo said.