BURRILLVILLE – In a split vote this week, the Burrillville School Committee authorized a partial reopening of schools, with special education students returning to buildings on Tuesday, Sept. 29, and those in grades pre-K through grade 5 back in the classroom in mid-October.

Students in grades 6 through 12 will only have access to distance learning when instruction begins this month, an arrangement expected to last through at least January.

“It’s a challenge to make sure we can do this safely for students and staff,” said Supt. Michael Sollitto during a virtual meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 1.

The decision, approved in a 4-3 vote, marks at least a short-term conclusion to a summer spent planning and replanning as state authorities laid out changing safety guidelines aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19.

And after months of debate, it was clear this week that opinions remain split on the wisdom of returning to in-person instruction.

“I’m really concerned about one child coming down with COVID in our classroom. I feel one child being sick is just too many,” said School Committee member Sylvia St. Pierre. “We’re setting up this situation where kids are going to get sick or teachers are going to get sick, and I don’t think it’s quite fair.”

Member Dorothy Cardon agreed, pointing to recent data that says children’s roll in harboring the virus is greater than we thought.

“I’m very, very concerned,” Cardon said. “My first concern is safety, health. I really feel that distant learning for a few more weeks would be the best way to go to protect everyone.”

Others were focused on getting more students back in the classroom faster.

“I have a big concern that we don’t have a plan to bring the students back in high school and middle school,” said Committee member Terri Lacey. “We don’t even have a starting point.”

Sollitto noted that it’s harder to create “pods,” for the older students – stable groups aimed at limiting widespread exposure – because they typically attend different classes throughout the day. Burrillville schools, he said, also lack enough staff to properly clean and sanitize all buildings.

“Our buildings are large at the secondary level,” Sollitto said. “I wish we could bring the kids back, because they absolutely deserve to be back in schools. I just don’t think we can do it safely.”

The superintendent had at first indicated a preference for full distance learning, with all Burrillville students to remain virtual through January, noting that the district lacks the financing for transportation under state guidelines for keeping kids spaced, along with the staffing for proper sanitation.

But Gov. Gina Raimondo has emphasized a desire to see schools across the state reopen, pointing to the threat of lawsuits from parents. Recently, the Town Council approved additional funding to help with Burrillville’s plan.

Solicitor Benjamin Scungio said he does feel lawsuits are a big concern.

“I don’t think liability at this point is going to be an issue,” said Scungio. “We have insurance that can limit most claims.”

Financially, Sollitto noted, a full return of all students in Burrillville remains out of the question.

“This is within the governor’s guidelines,” Sollitto said of his new recommendation for a “partial,” reopening.

The plan will see teachers return to schools on Monday, Sept. 14 and begin the school year with two weeks of virtual instruction. Students in kindergarten and grade 2; special needs students in pre-K; and high need students in all grades will follow, with a return September 29. And the remaining students in grades pre K through 5 will join them on Tuesday, Oct. 13.

“The extra two weeks will go along way towards ensuring accurate and safe bus routes,” Sollitto said. “I think that is really allowing teachers to get in the classroom and get a full trial run.”

Mondays will remain a distance learning day for all students to allow for a weekly deep cleaning of the buildings.

The superintendent said that plans will be reviewed weekly to see if additional groups of students can return safely.

“The ultimate goal is to bring all of our kids back as soon as possible,” Sollitto said. “This is not throwing in the towel on our high school and middle school students.”

He warned that a review – or potential outbreak – could also result in less students in the classroom.

“There’s a strong possibility we’ll be back in a full distance learning mode later in the year,” Sollitto said.

Many Burrillville parents have already indicated that their children will instead take advantage of the district’s “Distance Learning Academy,” when instruction begins. More than 660 students were already signed up for virtual learning as of this week, and parents have through Sept. 8 to register a final decision.

For those students, Curriculum Director Julie Mayhew noted instruction will be far more structured than it was when schools first closed in spring.

“When we went out on distance learning last year it was an emergency,” Mayhew said. “Those students are going to be following a daily schedule that mirrors the (in school) daily schedule.”

“We’re establishing routines,” Sollitto agreed. “We’re making expectations clear.”

More than 300 teachers, students and parents took part in the virtual meeting Tuesday night, asking questions and weighing in on the plan.

Parent Karen Franscisco noted that distance learning does not allow kids to fully utilize the district’s heavily emphasized “pathways,” program.

“I think you need to put more emphasis on grades 6-12,” Francisco said.

The partial reopening plan received the go-ahead with members Cardon, St. Pierre and Vice Chairman Donison Allen casting dissent.

“That will be our plan moving forward,” said Committee Chairman Mark Brizard. “I trust the superintendent.”

“We will do all we can to maintain this partial option,” Sollitto said. “Time will tell.”

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