NORTHERN RHODE ISLAND – Districts across the state are opting out of plans to reopen facilities next month, but many northern Rhode Island school departments remain on course for at least partial in-person learning in September.
North Smithfield Supt. Michael St. Jean has recommended a plan that will see students in grades K-12 attend schools two days each week, with three days of distance learning.
“At this time, we firmly believe that some in-person learning is preferable to none,” noted St. Jean in a letter to families.
St. Jean is not alone in the assessment. Schools in northern Rhode Island still on track for at least partial reopening on Monday, Sept. 14 if Gov. Gina Raimondo gives the go-ahead include Lincoln, Cumberland, Smithfield and Foster-Glocester.
The Woonsocket School District was among eight across the state to sign a letter this week to the governor stating that they don’t have time to create a plan for in-person instruction. Raimondo is expected to announce Rhode Island’s official plan on Monday, Aug. 31.
“Our top priority is bringing back students and staff in an environment that is safe, inviting, and nurturing for all,” the letter stated. “However, it has become clear over the last number of weeks that we may not be able to open schools in a way that keeps all our students, families, staff, and community members safe.”
The school districts of Coventry, Cranston, Johnston, Lincoln, Pawtucket, West Warwick and Warwick also signed the letter, noting that they are not able to meet safety standards aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19.
In Burrillville, Supt. Michael Sollitto announced last week that he would be recommending a fully remote learning plan. But at a School Committee meeting held on Tuesday, Aug. 25, board members delayed a final vote on the plan until next week.
“There some concern that if we move to a full distance learning model prior to the governor’s announcement, which is scheduled for next Monday, we may be opening ourselves up to possible legal action from advocacy groups,” said Sollitto. “We would not be supported by RIDE in those cases.”
The superintendent noted that he’s also concerned state and federal aid to Burrillville schools could be withheld if the district didn’t comply, particularly if the governor issues an executive order on reopening, putting the town in direct non-compliance.
Caroline Fox, president of the Class of 2021 weighed in Tuesday with the student perspective with a case for reopening.
“The entire college application process is going to be practically impossible virtually,” Fox said. “I feel we will not be getting the real help from our teachers through virtual learning.”
Fox also pointed to the students’ struggles with virtual learning.
“It is difficult to learn through a computer screen and it is difficult to grasp concepts without in-person help,” she said.
The Burrillville School Committee will meet again on Tuesday, Sept. 1 for a final vote following the state announcement.
Rhode Island Commissioner of Education Angélica Infante-Green had plans to host Rhode Island Department of Health Director Nicole Alexander-Scott and RIDOH Medical Director Jim McDonald for a family-focused Facebook Live forum on reopening schools on Thursday, Aug. 27 at 3 p.m. Those who wish to watch the forum live or after the event can view it here.
The districts concerned – or outright opposed – to reopening this fall cite issues such as maintaining proper distance between students, transportation, and an inability to meet staffing needs in classrooms. Further complicating the issue is the continued lack of a fiscal plan from the state legislature, leaving districts with little guidance on how the recommended safety measures will be funded.
“This has been something we’ve struggled and wrestled with daily,” said Sollitto. “It’s been a difficult, difficult decision.”
Sollitto noted his tentative aim is to have special needs students return first, with the remaining students primarily on remote model through January, but there is still a chance the district may offer some in-person instruction.
“We’re going to take one last look at everything,” said Sollitto. “It’s a real possibility that next week I’ll be in front on you saying ‘sorry, we can’t.'”
If the School Committee in North Smithfield ultimately approves St. Jean’s recommendation, the limited schedule would also see school days reduced by 45 minutes. Plans anticipate that 20 percent of the district’s students will choose the full distance learning option, making space for those who opt for some time in the classroom.
“We want schools to be open and social, less restrictive and prison-like, which will be difficult to achieve under a full in-person model,” St. Jean noted.
The recommendation in North Smithfield would see students divided alphabetically into two “cohorts.” Currently, the district is in the process of preparing facilities with proper ventilation and sanitary measures, from cases of latex gloves and disinfectant sprayers, to face shields for teachers.
“Our teachers and staff desperately want to reopen and welcome all students back, but given budgetary constraints, restrictions in bussing and gatherings, taking extra health and safety precautions, accommodating the mix of in-person and distance learning needs, everything this year will be a balancing act like we have never seen before,” St. Jean said.