NORTH SMITHFIELD – While many elements of the state’s plan to reopen schools in fall still remain unclear, North Smithfield officials noted this week that their goal remains to offer at least some in-person instruction for all grade levels.

Supt. Michael St. Jean discussed the town’s tentative reopening proposals with members of the School Committee during a Zoom meeting this week, and dozens of parents tuned it, with up to 100 participants listening at a time Tuesday night.

“We need the kids in the school,” St. Jean said. “They need to be with their friends. They need to be with their teachers, so we’re going to make every effort to bring them into the schools.”

But many aspects of the plans remain in flux, as officials work to juggle limited classroom and bus space, and complications such as teachers and parents with underlying health issues.

“Many of these questions, we don’t have the answer to,” St. Jean said. “We don’t know what August is going to look like. We don’t know the state of the pandemic. We don’t know how Rhode Island is going to be faring.”

The superintendent noted that in a recent survey, 33 percent of North Smithfield families indicated they would prefer their children continue to learn from home. But as of Tuesday, there was no indication from state authorities if that would be allowed.

On Thursday, St. Jean announced that he had received the go-ahead from RIDE to offer families a virtual learning option.

St. Jean said that 700 out of 1,600 families completed the survey, and face coverings remained a divisive issue, with some parents saying they do not want their child to wear one, and others saying it’s the only way their kid should attend.

“This isn’t just a North Smithfield thing,” he said. “This is a nationwide debate right now.”

He noted that ultimately, the final decision will be made by the Department of Education, the Department of Health and the governor’s office.

“What we submit here may not be what actually happens,” St. Jean said. “None of these plans may be viable. We don’t know at this stage.”

Issues locally include RIDE’s proposed limits on bus seating. Even with students from the same household seated together, St. Jean noted that under a full reopening plan, some 60 elementary, and 160 high school and middle school students in North Smithfield would need to find alternate transportation.

Initial recommendations that desks are placed six feet apart are not possible with the district’s current facilities, as only around 14 desks would fit in a room that normally holds 22 to 28 students.

“We will have difficulty social distancing within the classroom,” the superintendent said.

And the guidance dictates that children can’t face a penalty for not wearing face coverings.

“A lot of our teachers are very concerned,” St. Jean said.

One likely element of any reopening in Rhode Island is a plan for “distance Mondays,” when schools get a deep cleaning while kids learn from home.

RIDE’s current recommendation for partial reopening would see in-person instruction the remaining four days a week for students in pre-K through grade 4, but it’s a subject that St. Jean said North Smithfield officials see somewhat differently.

“We do not want any grade level, in any plan, to do full distance learning,” he said. “We know that the students are better coming in at least some days a week.”

Most likely, he said, the answer will be somewhere in the middle, where students with special needs are prioritized for in-person instruction. A hybrid plan for the middle school and high school could see half attend on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, with the other half in schools Thursdays and Fridays.

Either way, the schools themselves must be ready for the challenge of keeping kids safe and St. Jean said staff is reorganizing classrooms now to make them easier to clean. Custodians have been issued backpacks with spray misters, and hand washing stations are being installed.

The superintendent noted that he’s hoping for more guidance from the state sooner rather than later.

“We need to plan. Our families need to plan,” he said.

A community forum on the reopening was also held on Thursday. Parents were asked to submit questions in advance and the video was published online.

A full video of the Tuesday meeting can be found here and a slideshow of the presentation can be found here.

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