Tuesday, April 14, 2020

My Monthly Column – April 2020

We empathize with families on remote learning challenges 
By Xavier Botana

As you now know, the Portland Public Schools won’t be re-opening our buildings for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year. Instead, we’ll continue to deliver learning remotely through the end of the year.

We based our decision on a recommendation by Maine’s education commissioner that school districts should continue remote learning to keep students and staff safe during this COVID-19 crisis. I believe our decision was the right one – but it was a painful one.

While everyone at the Portland Public Schools is working incredibly hard to make remote learning a success, we know it doesn’t replace the classroom experience.

Remote learning also creates so many challenges for our families, particularly those also coping with issues such as job loss, dislocation or illness. 

I am very fortunate my family is together and that we have the flexibility of being able to work mainly from home. However, I see firsthand in my daily conversations with staff who have different circumstances just how taxing those can be. They, like many of our parents, must juggle working from home with providing childcare and managing school expectations.

Remote learning is not easy for students, either. I recently had the opportunity to participate in a virtual meeting with youth leaders from one of our great community partners. 

As we discussed their experiences with remote learning, these amazing young people spoke about how different circumstances make it challenging for them. They talked about not being able to work at their after-school jobs, needing to pitch in to take care of younger siblings, the grief of losing out on school rites of passage and the sense of social isolation that comes from home confinement. We often think of young people as living primarily on their phones, but it turns out they miss actual social interaction as much as adults do.

Many of our students and families are experiencing anxiety and distress – normal reactions in these difficult times. Help is available. The district’s school counselors and social workers are ready to assist students and to aid in connecting families to community and national resources. You can find a letter from them on our website (in English and seven other languages) that tells how to contact them and also how to support your family’s mental health. Find the page with the letter HERE.

Also, after April break, we plan to hold a virtual Parent University session for families on the topic of maintaining social/emotional health during this time. We’ll post the details on our website soon.  

Across the country, some districts have opted to work through the April vacation. However, along with most Southern Maine districts, we have decided to maintain our scheduled break because we believe everyone needs a respite from the tremendous initial effort to launch remote learning. Following the break, we will hopefully be more restored to finish out the school year.

I’ll close with the news that the Portland Board of Public Education on April 7 unanimously approved the appointment of Alyson Dame and Abdullahi Ahmed as co-principals of Deering High School.

The two were serving as interim co-principals while we conducted a nationwide search for a permanent school leader. Based on their achievements over the past year and their unique qualities, our search ended up confirming that we already had the best people in place at Deering.

Interim Assistant Principal Jim Moses also will continue to provide his steady leadership in that same role at Deering next year.

I’m pleased that these accomplished school leaders will be able to provide continuity to Deering in these uncertain times.