Portland Public Schools has decided to not bring back elementary school students for in-person learning five days per week by mid-October as the district had originally planned, a move that generally met with approval from numerous parents picking up their students Thursday.

Portland Superintendent Xavier Botana speaks to reporters Aug. 20 about the district’s plan for hybrid learning this fall. That plan changed this week. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Superintendent Xavier Botana announced the decision in a letter to families Wednesday in which he said physical space, staffing and the impact of bringing twice as many students into schools as are currently attending in-person could change the district’s ability to mitigate COVID-19 while providing instruction.

“As you know, Maine overall has kept the risk of contracting COVID-19 relatively low,” Botana said. “Working together, we have done a good job of managing risk and following our health and safety guidelines. I am concerned that transitioning to a different scenario with twice as many students in school each day would greatly increase our risk. That fact weighed heavily in the decision.”

Stephanie Bethel, whose daughter Juliet attends Ocean Avenue School, said that as much as parents and children want to be back in-person five days per week, the decision to stick with the district’s hybrid plan for now is probably safest. Maine reported 59 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, the largest single day spike since late May, and schools around the state have started to report some cases among staff and students.

“As much as we would all love to have our kids be able to go to school every day for us and for them, I think they’re putting safety first,” Bethel said while wearing a mask and social distancing from other parents at dismissal time Thursday.

Antonio Divanga, who has children in first and third grades at Ocean Avenue, said he is happy with the current model that allows his children, who are English-language learners, to be in-person four days per week.


“It’s up to the school,” Divanga said speaking through a school staff member who acted as a translator. “If the school says they are supposed to come five days per week, I would agree with that because I want my kids to learn more. But it’s up to the school.”

Most elementary school students in Maine’s largest district are currently attending in-person two days per week and learning remotely the other days. In addition, almost 19 percent of students in preschool through eighth grade are enrolled in Remote Academy, the district’s remote-only option.

Benjamina Razsa and her son Val, a fourth-grader at the Reiche school in Portland, leave the school at dismissal on Thursday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Students who signed up for Remote Academy were asked to enroll through the first trimester, and if a significant number decide to opt for in-person instruction after the trimester break, that could already add to the number of students in buildings. The first trimester ends Dec. 4.

In his letter, Botana said increasing the number of students in schools would raise concerns about the availability of physical space, making it hard to physically distance, especially during meals when students are supposed to be 6 feet apart, according to state guidelines.

Bringing all students back in-person would also stretch the capacity of nursing and instructional staff, Botana said. While the district has sufficient substitutes lined up right now, shortages could occur if the number of absent teachers increases significantly.

According to the reopening plan approved by the school board in August, the district would re-evaluate the model for elementary students in preschool through fifth grade to see if those students could return in-person five days per week by Oct. 13. The board will be discussing the decision at its meeting Tuesday, and Botana said the district will continue to evaluate its capacity to increase in-person learning.


Access to childcare under the hybrid learning model has been a challenge for many families, and Botana said he is cognizant of that. Spots are still available in community partner programs the district is providing on remote days and before and after school, he said.

At Reiche Elementary School Thursday, parent Brittney Russell said she thinks the safest decision is to keep students in the hybrid model. A manager at a Subway, Russell said she and her husband, who works night shifts at the Portland House of Pizza, are able to take turns watching their third-grade daughter and picking her up from school because they have opposite hours.

“This is safest for now,” Russell said. “I don’t know what could happen if it was full five with too many kids and not the whole distance thing. I just don’t know. It’s hard telling not knowing.”

Another Reiche parent, Benjamina Razsa, agreed, but said childcare is still a concern for all parents.

A physician, Razsa said she and her husband, a professor at Colby College, have staggered schedules that allow her to work more weekends while he works during the week and vice versa. Their son, Val, is a fourth-grader.

“We are all are hoping life will go back to normal, our kids can go back to school and we can do our work like we used to, but it’s not there,” Razsa said. “It’s not going to be there for a while. So that’s the only reasonable call that they made.”

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