BURRILLVILLE – With elements such as transportation, the requirement of masks, and how to deal with parents who are not ready to send their children back to school still unresolved, the Burrillville School Department announced tentative plans for fall reopening this week.
The Rhode Island Department of Education has called on all districts across the state to submit plans including three scenarios for planned reopening by the deadline of Friday, July 17.
And in a letter to parents, Supt. Michael Sollitto noted that even a full return to in-person learning in Burrillville could see days in the facilities reduced from five to four, with one day of virtual learning.
Other scenarios include a partial return, in which all students will have some in-person learning and some virtual education, with students attending on alternating days or weeks, so that no more than 50 percent are in a building at a time.
A limited return, meanwhile, would see most students remain at home, with a small population of students returning in person. Preference would be given to vulnerable populations such as students with IEPs, or those in transition years including grades K, 2, 6, and 9.
“In each of these scenarios, there will be virtual options for students who are unable to return to school due to underlying health issues,” Sollitto noted.
At a virtual meeting of the School Committee this week, Sollitto said that a team of some 35 staff members and seven subcommittees have been working out Burrillville’s plans.
“We’ve been revising this and working on it daily,” Sollitto said. “There’s a lot of different elements that we have to consider to put this plan together. It’s a balancing act, for sure.”
How to handle bus transportation remains an ongoing challenge for Rhode Island schools. State guidelines for buses limit ridership to one student per seat, or approximately 25 students per bus, but districts don’t have enough busses or drivers to meet the requirement for the full population.
In Burrillville, the superintendent said that ridership will be established through an application process, and based on space availability, with a lottery system if there are more requests than available seats.
“If you can provide transportation or if you can arrange for car pooling, please plan to do so,” Sollitto said.
A detailed bus application process is scheduled to be released on Monday, July 20.
Face coverings present another challenge.
“We recognize that many parents are concerned about mask wearing for long periods of time,” Sollitto said, noting that elementary students will not be required to wear masks during the school day while in their stable groups. “In efforts to keep students and staff safe, all students must wear masks when they are not properly socially distanced.”
Masks, he noted, will be worn whenever students are traveling.
Accommodations for health-compromised students are also being laid out.
School Committee member Alexandra LeClaire asked the superintendent if there was also a plan for health compromised teachers.
“We’re trying to match that up with the virtual academy approach,” Sollitto responded. “We’re really in the infancy stages of trying to develop this. It’s definitely part of the conversation.”
The superintendent noted that district officials are still unsure of what to do for parents who are not comfortable with their kids returning. A district-wide survey found that 45 percent of Burrillville parents were not yet ready to send their children back to the facilities.
Sollitto said school officials plan to send out a second survey to see if those feelings have changed.
“My gut feeling is they haven’t,” he said. “As a parent, I get that.”
Currently, the district has an application process for parents who want to home-school their children, but Sollitto noted that distance learning through the Burrillville School Department is a different thing.
“We don’t provide any resources,” he said of home schoolers.
Budgetary issues further complicate district plans, with schools officials still unsure how much funding they will receive from the town or state.
“All of these issues are a struggle,” Sollitto said. “All of these are things we’ve never faced before.”
The superintendent also serves on the State Task Force of the Committee for Fall Athletics, and said that a decision on sports likely won’t be made until after August 15.
“There’s some sentiment that low-contact sports like cross country will probably be allowed,” he said.
He said there’s also discussion of moving fall sports to a different season, a plan that would come with its own list of challenges.
“We don’t know what things are going to look like in the fall,” he said. “They’re exhausting all possibilities to get the kids some kind of athletics this year.”
School Committee Chairman Mark Brizard thanked the Burrillville team for their work in addressing the complex plans thus far.
“There are just so many scenarios and hypotheticals,” Brizard said. “I think our reentry committee is doing a fantastic job in keeping this together.”
RIDE officials are expected to provide feedback on district plans by the end of the month, and determine which scenario is appropriate based on guidance from the Department of Health.
Sollitto said a final, detailed re-entry strategy will be posted on the district website no later than July 31.
He noted that planning has been, “a whirlwind of Zoom meetings and Google hangouts.”
“We’re making decisions that we think will keep our kids and staff safe while providing the best education,” he said.