NORTH SMITHFIELD – North Smithfield school buildings are in full compliance with the guidelines for reopening set out by the Rhode Island Department of Health and are ready for the return of students in two weeks.

Officials visited the schools on Tuesday, Sept. 1, making the town’s facilities among the first in Rhode Island to pass the inspection announced this week by Gov. Gina Raimondo.

“They could not find anything that North Smithfield (was) lacking in facilities, operations, procedures and protocols,” said Supt. Michael St. Jean at a virtual meeting of the School Committee Tuesday night. “That’s great news.”

The approval, St. Jean noted, is the result of extensive work to prepare over the summer months, from the purchase of protective equipment, to the cleaning and servicing of HVAC systems. Classrooms were fitted with hand sanitizer, disinfectant spray and paper towel dispensers.  

The superintendent noted that assessors from RIDOH looked at 36 metrics including safety equipment, planning and the buildings themselves.

“Our ventilation system is running with complete efficiency,” St. Jean said. “That’s a big checkmark that they were looking for.”

“The result was – if they could film any school or district to show as a model for the rest of the state, it would be North Smithfield,” he said. “We are good to go. We have everything signed off. “

To start the year on Monday, Sept. 14, all North Smithfield students will have a day of remote learning, with the first day each week to be reserved for virtual instruction through the upcoming months. The district has divided students in “cohorts,” alphabetically with all whose names start with the letters A through L to attend in-person on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and M through Z to occupy the classrooms on Thursdays and Fridays. 

Preschoolers will attend all four days each week.

St. Jean said detailed plans were set to come out on Wednesday, Sept. 2 in a letter to parents. 

The district reopened the portal to register for distance learning allowing parents to register a the remote option. Prior to last week, around 360 students – roughly 20 percent – were registered for the virtual learning.

Since then, “About half dropped out and another half came in, so our numbers didn’t really change,” St. Jean said of recent registrations. 

The superintendent warned that staffing may become an issue. Teachers legally entitled to 12 weeks leave, he noted. Others have retired or registered for FMLA.

“We anticipate teachers needing to be out,” he said.

North Smithfield schools will be shortening the day by 25 minutes rather than the 45 initially planned to provide flexible prep time for teachers. And schools, St. Jean noted, will be cleaned nightly, rather than using up potential instruction time.

“We’re not going to spend a full day deep cleaning,” he said.

Officials struck an optimistic – albeit cautious – tone during Tuesday’s discussion. The plan is dependent on community support, with distancing guidelines limiting available transportation.

“We’re going to need the parents help on bussing,” noted Committee Chairman James Lombardi. 

Social Studies Department Chairperson Natalie OBrien said she’s confident in North Smithfield’s plan.

“I believe in the district,” said O’Brien. “I believe in the administration and I believe it is going to be ok.”

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