Editor’s Note: The Southeast Examiner went to press before Portland Public Schools announced earlier this week that it would not reopen classrooms in September and only distance learning would be available until at least November. 

By Midge Pierce

The stakes are high as Portland Public School (PPS) administrators grapple with whether or not to reopen classrooms on September 2.

It’s a fluid situation that leaves around 49,000 students in limbo and their teachers, parents, parents’ employers and the entire City economy uncertain what school will look like in the fall.

With contradictory reports about the risks of COVID-19 and the current rise in cases, the chances of back-to-buildings education declines.

PPS officials stress that they will not open school facilities until public health officials deem them safe. If campuses remain closed, teaching for all students will be virtual. The situation changes daily.

As overwhelmed parents struggle to maintain work-family balance, keep jobs, suffer food insecurity or face houselessness, PPS released a proposal for how schools might reopen safely. The hybrid proposal splits students into two groups to facilitate social distancing.

Group A would attend school on Monday and Tuesday. Group B would attend on Thursday and Friday. Cleaning and sanitation would be done on Wednesday. High school students would have class loads reduced to four per semester. PPS says it is an agile plan designed to shift students from on site to online classrooms as conditions dictate.

For parents leery of sending children back to school buildings, PPS is considering a full-time distance learning option that would not require in-person attendance. To participate, children would need to be registered in the district.

School funding is based on enrollment. Per pupil registrations would offset the significant cost of distance learning, retraining and keeping building lights on. PPS has already supplied 15,000 Chromebooks to students and will supply more to incoming, low-income students. It is also working with Comcast to offer free wi-fi.

PPS spokesperson Karen Werstein stresses that prioritizing marginalized students most impacted by the pandemic is the district’s guiding principle. The semester’s first two weeks will be spent getting online access to all students and implementing new procedures.

Administrators know that piecemeal education is imperfect. In this unprecedented pandemic, there are no good options and many unknowns. Caught without viable, virtual preparations when closures hit last spring, the district must beef up expenditures for distance learning. Costs are still being tallied.

“To open safely, Portland needs twice as many teachers,” according to Elizabeth Thiel, President of the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT). “If it’s the will of the federal government to open schools, it must cost out and provide funds for hiring more teachers.”

She says the district must ensure that every classroom has sufficient space to separate students plus ample ventilation. Some of Portland’s older schools have inadequate air circulation systems, according to Thiel.  Over 17 years, she has taught in several rooms where windows wouldn’t open.

PPS should not put teachers in unsafe situations, she says, since around 40 percent have, or live with someone who has, underlying conditions that increase COVID-19 dangers.

Thiel wonders how students will fare with the loss of on site supervision and in-person interactions. She worries about children dependent on programs that fill their backpacks on Fridays with food for the weekend. She questions how the district will monitor student progress and teacher accountability.

Buckman Elementary’s Parent Teacher Association (PTA) President Amanda Russell commends PPS efforts to open part-time, but wonders how the district will ensure that education gaps don’t widen.

A major concern is that schools will not receive extra personnel to screen, monitor and isolate children who may be exhibiting symptoms.

“Now is the time to utilize every resource possible,” Russell says, “to loudly advocate for students and to partner with parents and various organizations to meet challenges.”

Acknowledging there are many unanswerable questions, PPS responds that the hybrid schedule avoids the need for more hires and school rooms.

Richmond parent and President of the Portland Parent Teacher Association Abby Nilsen-Kirby says, “The PPS proposal has lots of holes, especially for students in special education.”

Her organization is seeking ways to support parents and teachers regardless of whether or not they return to in-person instruction.

Free and for-profit programs exist to serve students at all levels. Figuring out how to access distance learning is daunting, according to Nilsen-Kirby, even for families with educational expertise.

Her mother is a teacher and helpful resource living only blocks away. For health safety reasons, however, she only connects with the grandchildren online. Nilsen-Kirby says contagion risks are too great for her three children to return to classrooms.

“I have the luxury of being home so it doesn’t upset my family financially,” she says. Still she faces the expense of buying each child a computer and navigating inevitable scheduling conflicts.

Temperament and age are also determinants in how well students adjust to distance learning. The youngest students need face-to-face teacher time to stay on track, according to Nilsen-Kirby. Her first grader had the most difficulty staying focused, she says, while her middle daughter had no trouble staying engaged.

Creston-Kenilworth school mom Erin Telford’s son is an incoming second grader. A tech savvy architect, she says the situation is unnerving for everyone.

“I’m not sure how to make online work,” Telford says. “But I sure wish we could just put our heads into solving that, instead of worrying about attending classrooms.”

A couple whose kids attend Atkinson is undecided about sending their kids back. Work-at-home Dad Rob Wardwell is uncomfortable with the health risks.

ER doc and Mom Kirin Beyer says virtual education does not work for their second grade son. Their daughter Polly is self-motivated enough to thrive online despite trepidation about entering Tabor Middle School without meeting classmates and teachers in person.

Middle and high school students face challenges of having multiple teachers in a given day. Concerns abound about the long-term effects of digital education on teenagers who already spend too much time online. Cyber-bullying is a stress point.

Parents of older students who understand risks and social responsibilities tend to involve their children in decisions. PAT’s Thiel says whether to return her two kids to a middle school campus will be a family discussion.

In Montavilla, a family with the means to do so is hiring a tutor and asking neighboring parents who want to share the teacher to chip in what they can.

It’s a model that pits charges of privilege against parental obligations to use all resources at their disposal to do their best for their children.

A local pastor asks, “How can we teach children kindness and acceptance without using every tool we have to meet their needs?”

Even if families tap additional resources, Buckman’s Amanda Carmichael stresses the importance of enrolling students in public schools to ensure continued per pupil funding.

“These are weird, depressing times,” says Carmichael. “But it’s only temporary. We can do anything for a few months, right?”

For the most up to date PPS information go to: pps.net/fall2020.