Truong and Christa Vo sit outside their Portland home with their four daughters, who are enrolled in Portland Public Schools’ Remote Academy. The program has been late getting started and the girls had only one district-issued device to share. Christa Vo, who is PTO president for the Reiche school, said families are struggling with logging in to the online platforms and getting devices. The students are, from left, fifth-grader Jolene, kindergartner Vivienne, fourth-grader Loretta and second-grader Cici. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Most students enrolled in in-person or hybrid models of school have been in class for at least a week or longer, yet the roll-out of some remote-only options has been slower as districts work out delays and technical difficulties.

Christa Vo, who has four daughters in Portland Public Schools’ Remote Academy, said that while the district’s remote-only option had technically started, it was only for orientation and her daughters still only had one district-issued device to share.

“Today was basically our third day,” Vo said in an interview on Thursday. “What they’ve been doing because there have been so many issues with kids not having access to technology and not having their log-in information and all kinds of issues like that, they’ve just been doing optional morning meetings, so each of my kids is on for half an hour per day.”

Many districts around Maine are offering students a remote-only option this fall as an alternative to returning in-person a few days per week during the coronavirus pandemic. But while in-person instruction has started at most schools, some remote-only options have been slower to start, in some cases because of technical difficulties, the need to ensure access to technology and hot spots, and the nationwide demand for online curriculum, devices and supplies.

Vo, who serves as president of the parent teacher association at Reiche Elementary School, said in an email to Portland school administrators and board members last week that access to technology, support for English language learners and students who need social work and access to school supplies for remote-only learners are among concerns, as well as equity.

“I am sure instruction is happening in person this week and next week,” she said in the email, which she shared with the Press Herald. “Remote families have been given zero curriculum, and have been told that instruction is not happening yet, not sure when it is expected to start. This is seriously inequitable, remote learners are receiving a separate and unequal education through no fault of teachers, due to poor planning from the district.”

By Monday, Vo said her children had logged in and were receiving instruction in Remote Academy, but they were still trying to figure out how to navigate the platform and had questions about what resources and supports will be available to remote-only families and how to access them.

“Just figuring out the timing of everything is what we’re working on,” Vo said. “When is everybody synchronous and when are they supposed to be doing assignments? That whole piece has been interesting to figure out.”

Fourth-grader Loretta Vo studies music on a district-issued laptop Monday while her sister, second-grader Cici Vo, watches. The Vo family has four students in Portland Public Schools’ Remote Academy – the district’s remote-only option. The district was forced to do a soft launch of the program last week because of challenges including the setup of technology platforms and distribution of devices to students. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The first day of school in Portland Public Schools was Sept. 14. About 900 students, or 13 percent of the district’s population, are enrolled in Remote Academy. In a video message to families Sunday afternoon, Portland Superintendent Xavier Botana acknowledged the rollout of the remote-only option has been bumpy. While classes were held last week, Botana said they were focused on building relationships and assessing technology needs, and that the district expects to introduce content this week.

“We’re having growing pains and I’m here to let you know what we’re doing to address those,” Botana said in the video. As the district worked this summer to reopen schools for the fall, believing that in-person instruction is the best way to educate students, Botana said they were surprised by the number of families that opted for remote-only.

“As you know it became quite large,” Botana said. “We’re almost at 1,000 students pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. That necessitated staffing for that level, a process that took the better part of two weeks. Our teachers and ed techs didn’t know they were assigned to the Remote Academy until just two weeks ago.

“Since then they’ve been training, setting up structures and in other ways preparing for the launch, and they will continue to do so with diligence and resolve. There have been challenges we did not envision and I take responsibility for those.”

Among those challenges, Botana said there were issues in setting up technology platforms to have students connected both to Remote Academy and their home schools so they can continue to be connected to their home school communities. Like other school districts around the country, Portland schools are also encountering shortages of computers and other supplies. “We do not have enough computers to be able to provide one-to-one access to all of our families, whether remote or hybrid,” Botana said.

He said Remote Academy families have been prioritized, but the district will not be able to provide one-to-one devices until after a large shipment of computers arrives by Nov. 1, and the district also is working to triage instances where devices are broken or malfunctioning.

“We made some decisions this past week in recognition of these start-up challenges, but we did not communicate about them well enough,” Botana said. “We used this past week as a soft launch. Our focus was on allowing teachers to build community with their students and in the process better understand what we were missing in terms of connectivity and devices.”

In South Portland, Pedro and Lindsey Vazquez have three children enrolled in their district’s remote-only option. When the family picked up the district-issued devices, they were told they would be loaded with the proper log-in credentials. That wasn’t the case, as the devices appeared to still be linked to last year’s classrooms and curriculum.

“It’s a technical issue and one we’ve been advised will be fixed by Monday, but the rollout has been kind of clunky,” Pedro Vazquez said in an interview last week. “But that’s to be expected. They haven’t done this before.”

His oldest daughter, who is in eighth grade, had started her remote classes last week while his two younger children in fifth and second grades didn’t start until Monday. Elementary school students enrolled in the district’s hybrid program started in-person Sept. 8.

South Portland Superintendent Ken Kunin said Friday that the district prioritized getting devices out to families last week. They started full remote learning for elementary students Monday, but needed to work through the weekend to create log-ins for each application so that when students open their devices, most of the applications will work without additional pass codes.

“This has been a monumental undertaking opening what are essentially three different schools with ever-changing enrollment,” Kunin said in an email Friday. About 85 percent of the district’s 1,350 students in pre-K through fifth grade are enrolled in the hybrid model, participating in-person two days per week and three days remotely, while about 15 percent are in the full distance option.

In Cumberland-based School Administrative District 51, Superintendent Jeff Porter said about 130, or 6 percent, of the district’s students are enrolled in Remote School. That number was more than expected and staffing has been a challenge, particularly at the Mabel I. Wilson School, Porter said.

“One of our schools we did not have the staffing in place at the beginning of the school year,” Porter said Monday. “We finally do. This is actually the first day we’re able to move ahead with what I consider to be a full staff for remote learning at that school.”

For middle and high school students, Porter said the intent is for classes to be livestreamed so those who are remote can attend, but the district lacks the equipment to improve the quality of the livestream, which is on back order, and has not upgraded its network, something it plans to do with about $900,000 in coronavirus relief funds.

“I think we’re getting into a rhythm,” Porter said. “This is all new for us. In some ways we’re running three different schools: in-person, virtual — when kids are not here — and then fully remote. We’re trying to balance all three of those. It’s challenging to make the staffing all work out.”

In Westbrook, Superintendent Peter Lancia said last week that district’s program, Remote by Choice, had started, but in stages, and he expects it to be fully operational this week. Students participating in the hybrid in-person model started Sept. 14 after a one-week delay caused in part by staffing challenges.

About 400 students in Westbrook are enrolled in Remote by Choice and the program has deliberately been rolled out in steps to ensure that staff could connect with students and families, especially at the elementary level, said Assistant Superintendent Kim O’Donnell, who is organizing the program.

As of Friday, middle and high school students in Westbrook were enrolled and participating in Edmendum Courseware, an online curriculum. Elementary school students were connecting with teachers and will be taking diagnostic assessments this week so an individualized learning path can be created.

“Part of the delay was ensuring that the students were enrolled in the correct classes as we are committed to providing new learning,” O’Donnell said in an email. “We also had to work with the company on training dates, a challenge as they are being inundated by districts across the country who are also providing a remote experience. Another challenge was ensuring that technology and hotspot needs were assessed in real time as we are providing broad support to our community.”

Families have had mixed reactions to the slower roll-out of remote-only options. For some it has compounded the stress of an already unusual and hectic school year, while others understand that even after using remote learning last spring an entirely online platform is a new concept to many districts.

Natasha Lyons, whose two children normally attend Reiche in Portland, said she has been frustrated with Remote Academy because she only has one device for them to share, poor internet service and hasn’t been able to get a hotspot from Portland Public Schools. She chose the remote-only option because she has family members who are at high risk and her third-grade son, Dominik, has severe asthma.

While morning meetings for students started Tuesday, Lyons said she wasn’t able to get her son to log-in and meet his teacher until Friday and had to use her phone to help her daughter connect and meet her teacher.

“I don’t even know if it’s going to work,” Lyons said. “We’re on the third day and they’re still trying to get people their devices. I don’t know how people are doing it if they don’t have internet.”

Without another device, Lyons said one of her children will probably end up doing less school work than they should. “I feel like she’s going to suffer because she’s not going to want to do it,” she said of her daughter, Lareina, who is in first grade. “She’s not going to sit there and want to wait for a computer.”

Vazquez, the South Portland father, said his family tried to make the best of the delay and they are “no longer in summer mode.” He and his wife were doing enrichment activities and enforcing bed time last week just as they would during regular school.

“We understand it’s a very complex system to put into place and always when you’re looking at something in hindsight you can see where things could have been done better,” Vazquez said. “There are a number of things that could have been done better but this is where we are. I’m not mad about, it but we are a little anxious to get back into the swing of things.”

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