NORTH SMITHFIELD – Students kept in groups to minimize widespread contact. New, extensive cleaning procedures. Daily student and staff screenings, handwashing stations and face masks on every teacher and student.
These are just a few elements of a tentative plan released by Supt. Michael St. Jean this week for a full reopening of North Smithfield schools this fall.
With state guidelines as yet unclear, St. Jean noted that district officials are laying out the details of three potential scenarios: limited in-person instruction, partial in-person and full in-person education.
The district will submit the draft plans to the Rhode Island Department of Education for approval, and make adjustments as needed, as state guidelines are laid out.
The news comes amid mixed messages from national authorities. The Center for Disease Control has released guidelines calling for at least six feet of distance between desks, and the closing of communal areas like dining rooms and playgrounds. But federal Education Secretary Betsy Devos has been critical of state governors for their hesitation to resume in-person instruction.
While the authority ultimately falls with the states, President Donald Trump has threatened to withhold federal aid to governors who don’t reopen.
Rhode Island may be well-suited to weather the political storm. Coronavirus deaths, hospitalizations and infections have been decreasing in the state since April and an article in Politico this week hailed Rhode Island as something of a pandemic aversion success story.
Gov. Gina Raimondo has called on districts to submit their reopening plans by a deadline of July 17. The Department of Education has hired a consulting firm to review those plans and provide feedback.
St. Jean noted that in North Smithfield, specific committees have been set up to work on logistics; transportation; facilities; operations; health and wellness; curriculum, instruction, technology; human resources, finance and school community.
“We are also collaborating with school districts in our region and across the state,” said St. Jean. “Regionally, we will be sharing the best solutions and coordinating our efforts to bring our students back to school safely.”
St. Jean said that the goal in North Smithfield is “full in-person for all,” and officials are laying out ideas for how that can happen, with changes in classroom layouts to allow for social distancing, and staff and students kept in stable groups. Students with prior health conditions, he said, can be accommodated through distance learning.
But transportation remains a concern.
Current state guidance for buses limits 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. Superintendents have requested raising the ridership to at least two students per seat, but it is unclear if the limits will be increased.
“We will still have to pull together and help out with carpools and other means of getting to and from school,” St. Jean said.
“This is just a small list,” he added. “In order to reopen safely, the overall changes and restructuring will be extensive. We will try and minimize any disruptions and ensure a smooth transition to instruction regardless if conditions in August allow us to re-open fully, partially, or we have to return to an improved distance learning.”
The superintendent said that once RIDE has reviewed the district’s full plan, it will be shared with the community, and that the state agency is expected to release finalized plans around July 30.
“We will continue to reach out to the community for input as we work through revisions and changing state, DOH, and CDC guidance as we get closer to school opening,” he said.
The Rhode Island Interscholastic League, meanwhile, has yet to announce if athletic programs will resume after the opening in late August.
St. Jean is calling on North Smithfield parents to complete a transportation and family survey that includes a question asking if they would consider a distance learning option, if available, rather than returning to school in-person.
“We also want to hear your own questions, comments, or suggestions regarding reopening in the fall,” he said.
Parents received a link to the survey in an email this week.
To view North Smithfield schools’ latest reopening plans, guides, and templates visit https://www.nsps.us/reopening.html. The site also contains the latest RIDE Statewide School Calendar, RIDE Reopening FAQ and RIDE Reopening Plan Guidance.