A group of students at Portland High School is asking the school district to halt plans to increase in-person learning at the end of the month, citing rising coronavirus cases and the likelihood that many families will be increasing contacts over the Thanksgiving holiday.

“We think this decision is premature and unsafe,” the students wrote in a petition on change.org. “Increasing the number of students who attend school each day is not a smart move right now.”

More than 230 people had signed the petition as of Wednesday evening. It comes a week after the district announced plans to increase in-person time for 10th- through 12th-graders in the district by requiring them to attend twice weekly “Learning Center” sessions starting Nov. 30.

Audrey Watson, the student body president at Portland High and one of four students who started the petition, shared with the Press Herald on Wednesday a letter sent by the same group to Superintendent Xavier Botana and school board members voicing concerns with the plan. The other students involved in writing the letter were Ella Anderson, Tessa Boxer-Macomber and Charlotte Lachance.

“Maine is currently experiencing a spike in cases,” the letter said. “Numbers are increasing faster than anywhere in the U.S. If three people at Portland High School have already tested positive, the current plan is not safe enough. Why would we add more people to the equation?”

Botana did not immediately respond to a phone call or email Wednesday afternoon. School district communications coordinator Tess Nacelewicz also did not immediately respond to an email.

How to safely reopen schools and how much in-person time should be available to students has been a point of debate in Portland as well as other districts this fall.

Joe Conroy, whose daughter Tess is a junior at Portland High, said Wednesday they support increased in-person time. Conroy said his daughter is worried about Advanced Placement exams and sees the increased Learning Center time as a chance to better prepare.

“Schools aren’t vectors right now, as I understand it,” Conroy said. “Cases are rising, but I think we should prioritize having students in person right now.”

Last week, the district announced Portland High would close for two days after a third case of coronavirus was reported. Assistant Superintendent Aaron Townsend said at the time the affected individual was not at the school during their infectious period and there was no exposure in the school community, but the building would close out of an abundance of caution.

To date there have been 24 cases of COVID-19 reported in Portland Public Schools, including 13 active cases. Ninety-four people are in quarantine as a result of coming in close contact with infected individuals, according to the district’s COVID report card, which is updated weekly. Botana said at a board meeting Tuesday that, to date, only one case in the district has been the result of transmission at school.

In the petition, the students wrote that those who want more in-person time should be able to use the Learning Center if they want to but it should not be required. They also expressed concern for teachers.

“Bringing hundreds of kids back into classrooms will not solve any problems, it will only create more,” the petition said. “Going back into school will not eliminate the anxieties people are facing during this pandemic. Students and teachers should not have to choose between going into school or keeping their families safe.”

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