By Kathreen Harrison


Sixteen days can make a world of difference sometimes. On March 10, just before Maine announced its first confirmed case of COVID-19, Xavier Botana, Superintendent of Portland Public Schools, presented his FY21 budget proposal “Addressing the Opportunity Gap” to the Portland Board of Public Education. Botana’s budget placed Equity as the marker against which budget decisions should be made.


Portland Public Schools Superintendent Xavier Botana

“When we compare the data of our students who are not disadvantaged with the data of our least advantaged students, we see great disparities,” Botana told the board that evening. Determined to improve prospects for the least privileged students in the state’s largest school system, he outlined ambitious plans to reduce the gap.

On March 26, 11 days after Governor Mills recommended ending classroom instruction in all public schools, and 16 days after Botana’s optimistic budget presentation, the Multilingual and Multicultural Center of the Portland Schools, together with Portland Empowered, convened a virtual meeting that included representatives of a number of different immigrant associations and their allies. At this meeting, Botana and others expressed grave concern that the closure of schools as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic would widen rather than reduce the opportunity gap.

“This school closure will definitely make the gap greater. Some students will have structures and supports and learning opportunities at home during this period and others won’t,” Botana said at the meeting. His words proved prescient.

Across Maine, as well as the nation, many teachers have struggled during the pandemic to connect with English Language Learners (ELL), students without technology or internet connectivity, students with parents who cannot speak English, students with parents who were never able to go to school, or were not educated in the U.S. and are therefore unfamiliar with the system here, homeless children – the populations most districts count amongst their most vulnerable students even in the best of times. Meanwhile, more privileged students have continued their education online, accessing what the schools offer, as well as other educational opportunities their parents provide.

The pandemic is shining a bright light on inequities already in Maine’s education system, said Dr. Abdullahi Ahmed, Co-Principal of Deering High School in Portland, by telephone recently. “Imagine being home with all the kids, an immigrant without fluency in the language, your kids scared and worrying.This crisis is highlighting the day to day reality of the poor. The middle class have supports available to them.For example, not all kids have the internet at home, and only because of the current crisis do teachers realize this. There is nothing good about this catastrophe other than that the closure of the schools is showing that public education is not adequate for the poor kids.”

Deering High School Co-Principal Dr. Ahmed

Todd Finn, Superintendent of the Lewiston Public Schools, reached by telephone on April 16 to discuss his district’s approach to meeting the needs of ELL students during the school closure, also referred during the call to issues of equity. “As the second largest district in Maine, we have nearly 6,000 learners enrolled, over 1,000 learners with special needs, over 1,400 students who are English Language Learners, and kids who speak 52 different languages. Over 64% of our learners are economically disadvantaged.”

Finn detailed a four-phase approach to the current crisis, which addressed getting food to needy kids as a first priority, followed by laptop and internet access. As of April 16, one month after schools closed, Finn said that the first round of laptop distribution had finally been completed, with some laptops donated, and others purchased. He felt confident that most kids in K-12 education in the Lewiston schools had devices by April 16.

But even with devices, many of the most vulnerable students still couldn’t access the virtual learning that is now Maine’s primary education mode. “The kids have laptops, but they don’t all have access to the internet. So we have distributed thousands of surveys to find out what families have and what they need in terms of access. We found out which neighborhoods needed wifi or mobile hotspots and which already have them. It’s a work in progress, not perfect by any means,” Finn said. In other words, as of April 16, it was as if one month of school simply hadn’t happened for many kids this year.

Lewiston Superintendent of Schools Todd Finn

Around the state, parents and educators are reporting that many children are not connecting to the schools online. Internet access is an issue statewide, according to Kelli A. Deveaux, Director of Communications for the Maine Department of Education. On April 27 she wrote in an email, “We believe that there are currently up to 25,000 students across Maine who lack a device and/or connectivity to the internet. The Department of Education is working on this, as we see inequitable access as a humanitarian crisis. To date we have been able to provide devices and hot spots to 500 students in the most densely underserved area of Maine (Piscataquis County), and are working to fund, procure and distribute more. We are striving to get every student in Maine connected.”

Community members report that many children of immigrant parents are not accessing virtual learning opportunities because of language barriers as well as connectivity issues. “Zoom calls are not happening in most ELL homes,” one parent told me. “There is a big gap between what the school is pushing out and the reality at home.”

Another parent, who doesn’t read English, said her school sends home physical packets for the younger children, but they don’t get much use. “We are sitting on them. We don’t know what to do with what the schools are offering.”

Parents report that young children living in homes that include a high school student are in luck, as the teenagers are able to provide support for their younger siblings. But many children in homes without older siblings don’t have anyone to help them figure out what to do with the material online or in the packets.

“Cleavages of class, race and geography have been carried over from the physical world to the internet, conceived by its creators as an egalitarian space offering information and opportunity to all. The neediest students, who stand to benefit the most from the learning opportunities the internet provides, are the least likely to experience them,” Kevin Mahnken wrote in The 74 on May 5.

Michael Kebede, Policy Counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, in an email cautioned,  “If we aren’t careful, increasing our reliance on the Internet to educate our children will only broader the achievement gap between those who have access and those who don’t – mostly children in rural areas, immigrants, and those from families with low or no income. As we establish new ways of doing things, we must ensure our response to this crisis guarantees equitable access for all students, regardless of where they live or how much money their parents make.”

Even for those kids who are able to connect online, working with ELL students presents special challenges for educators. “Communicating with students who are learning English is benefitted greatly by facial expressions, body language, and environmental context/cues. When working with students via phone or internet, teachers and students must become even more creative and resourceful to ensure that meaning is conveyed,” said Devreaux.

Equity between districts is as central to the experience of students in Maine as equity within districts, with ELL kids in certain districts more likely than those in others to be connected to programming during the crisis. Portland, which has had a diverse student body for decades, has a strong network already in place to help children from immigrant families. Portland Empowered, and the Multilingual and Multicultural Center of the Portland Schools – led by Grace Valenzuela –  are both central to that network. No other district in Maine has anything like a Multilingual and Multicultural Center as part of its school system.

Grace Valenzuela, Director of Portland Public Schools
Multilingual and Multicultural Center

However, even with Portland’s support networks, Botana said, “No school district in Maine, even the most proactive, claims to have come close to meeting the needs of all its students during the past two months. We (in Portland) know we have been able to connect with about 90% of our students and know how they are doing, and what they need. We have an idea of who the other 10% is, and the effort to connect with them is the work that teachers, social workers, and principals are engaged in.”

According to the Department of Education, this year Maine has 5,655 ELL students (approximately 3% of the total student population) enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools. That figure is over double the 2000 ELL population of 2,410. The five largest language groups of ELL students this year are Somali, Arabic, Portuguese, Spanish, and French, and statewide there are 109 different languages spoken by ELL students. Seven of the top ten languages are commonly spoken in Africa, including Swahili, Lingala, and Kinyarwanda.

At this point, while school leaders are engaged in finishing out the current academic year, they are also planning for school year 2020-2021. They are running different scenarios, not knowing for sure that school buildings will be able to open again, but hoping they can.

“Normally we generate 2 or 3 scenarios – we are now up to 8,” said Sonja Santelises, Superintendent of Baltimore City Public Schools, speaking on a nationally televised webinar about handling the COVID-19 crisis. Examples of possible scenarios she is considering focus on physical distancing in the context of  longer school days, alternating school days, half days, an early start, a possible mid-year release during flu season, teachers looping with students – and then of course the possibility school will be virtual again.

On the same webinar, “Getting Ready for the New (Ab)normal,” President Stephen Pruitt of the Southern Regional Education Board said he is sure that, “We are going to have deficits everywhere, and formative assessment is going to be critical. Even the high flyers are going to have deficits.” Some educators worry that kids will carry those deficits with them through their entire educational careers, and never make them up, and that disadvantaged children will suffer the most. Pruitt doesn’t accept that notion. “We are going to have to diagnose those deficits, meet kids where they are, and design instructional programming that moves them forward…And if we go into the fall and one of our number one priorities is not taking care of students’ social emotional welfare, catching them up academically is not going to happen.”

Pious Ali has been with Portland Empowered since 2014

At a meeting convened on May 1 by Portland Empowered that included immigrant leaders and their allies, Botana recommitted to the equity goals he had shared on March 10, just seven weeks previously. He talked about “supports for ELL programs. … closing the opportunity gap, and leveling the playing field.”  A team led by Assistant Superintendent Aaron Townsend that includes teachers and principals has begun to meet to think about next year. “Will we come back remote, will we have regular school, or regular school with social distancing?” mused Botana.

In Maine, control of educational decisions rests heavily in the hands of local school boards and educational leaders, which means that the experience of children of immigrant parents during the COVID-19 shutdown has varied by school district, with some districts connecting more closely than others with their vulnerable populations.  The COVID-19 crisis threw school districts into turmoil all around the world because it seemed to come out of left field. However, school year 2020-2021 is still three months off, and all districts have an equal opportunity to make sure the needs of their most vulnerable students are front and center as they convene planning teams and consider multiple possible scenarios for what everyone hopes will be an excellent school year 2020-2021.