NORTH SMITHFIELD – The North Smithfield School District is moving forward with its phased reopening plan, with all students in grade 5, and those at all levels with IEPs, to return to four days of in-person learning starting on Tuesday, Oct. 20.
But things are likely to get more complicated as the district looks to add more grades into the fold.
Supt. Michael St. Jean said Tuesday that staffing and spacing issues will make it difficult to continue adding students to full time classroom learning in the upcoming weeks.
“We physically don’t have the space,” St. Jean said.
The addition of grade 5, announced at a virtual meeting of the School Committee on Wednesday, Oct. 14, follows the successful return of full-time kindergarten and first grade students in the previous weeks. St. Jean noted that there have been a few more positive cases of COVID-19 among North Smithfield students – but all were with at-home learners.
The superintendent said he hopes to have students in grade 2 to return full-time in the following week, but the district has several issues to overcome to make it happen.
The first is staffing. Retirements, leaves of absence and the need to quarantine after potential virus exposure have created a shortage of teachers statewide, and the need is now severe at North Smithfield Elementary School, where St. Jean said even Principal Jennifer Daignault has been teaching classes.
St. Jean said the district is, “severally lacking teachers at elementary level,” and that he’s hoping to transfer some staffing from the middle and high schools, pending union approval.
“We may have to hold some resources from the middle school and high school to help prop up the elementary,” he said.
Spacing is also an obstacle. The closure of Halliwell Elementary School last year increased attendance at NSES and the middle school, putting both facilities at or near capacity.
“I miss Halliwell,” St. Jean said. “Halliwell was the perfect COVID campus.”
Still, St. Jean said, the district is prepared for the safe return of grade five. The phase-in will also accommodate all special needs students – including English language learners.
“That will cover every grade level up to grade 12,” St. Jean said of the IEP population.
Those who hope to remain fully virtual in North Smithfield can do so, but St. Jean said the district is not offering a hybrid, where parents can pick which days their children will appear in person.
“It’s not necessarily open to when you want to attend,” he said.
School officials have also looked at plans to add full-time learning for Grade 6 in the upcoming weeks, but St. Jean said problems such as spacing in the cafeteria mean they’re not yet ready. St. Jean said he remains hopeful regarding plans for at least a grade 2 return the week of October 26.
“We would still like to make the attempt to do so,” he said of an increased grade 2 return. “We do have to resolve the staffing and space issues.”
Bussing, initially a concern in North Smithfield, has not been an issue as many parents have opted to drop off the kids.
“We do have space on our buses,” the superintendent said.
The meeting included comments from parents, and feedback included criticism of the lack of accommodations for students with a 504 plan, who have extra learning needs but not necessarily an IEP.
District officials said they hope to prioritize a return for those students in the upcoming weeks and School Committee member voted unanimously to evaluate the move in the next seven days.
Others said more attention should be paid to the needs of high school students.
“You’re voicing a legitimate concern and it doesn’t fall on deaf ears,” St. Jean said.
Ultimately, St. Jean said, the district must continue to evaluate what’s safe and best for students.
“No matter what recommendation I make tonight, or any other night, half the people will be upset and disappointed,” he said. “We’re pushing quite hard, even though for many it may not seem that way.”