BURRILLVILLE – With the district averaging more than 30 teacher absences per day, Supt. Michael Sollitto says he can no longer safely staff Burrillville classrooms, and school board members voted unanimously Tuesday night to close town schools through winter break.
It’s a decision that will ultimately only affect nine days of learning, and although the departure from physical school buildings could be extended, officials said they’re hopeful it will be enough time to allow the region’s COVID-19 infection rate to come down.
“We don’t have the staff members to supervise kids,” Sollitto said.”We’re seeing more and more cases in town, which means we’re seeing more and more people that need to quarantine. That’s our big issue.”
More than 400 people attended the virtual meeting, between a Zoom forum and the district’s YouTube channel, with many parents telling members of the school board that their kids cannot benefit from virtual instruction.
“I can’t say this in a nice way – it’s garbage,” said Alysia Joyce, a mother of four kids in the Burrillville school system with three on IEPs. “It doesn’t work for them. They will fall behind. I promise you that despite my best efforts.”
But many others expressed understanding and gratitude for a district they said has done its best to provide some in-classroom instruction.
“The only way we’re going to get it to be normal again is to do the tough things right now,” said Adrienne Clune. “It’s not just the kids. Socially and emotionally, everybody is suffering.”
Sollitto noted that even teachers who were not showing symptoms have had to miss school due to the need to quarantine after exposure. And with a statewide shortage of substitute teachers, he said there just aren’t enough bodies to put in front of students.
“It’s not impacting one particular school,” he said. “It really has hit us at all levels.”
The superintendent pointed to the town-wide infection rate, which was 3.7 percent in the first week of November, according to data released by the Rhode Island Department of Health. As of the latest update, Burrillville’s rate was 11.9 percent.
“We’ve almost quadrupled over four weeks,” he said.
Parent Mandy Hulbert suggested the district could return to Phase 1 of the reopening plan laid out in fall, which would allow her daughter to remain in her life skills classroom
“There’s still enough people to cover these classrooms,” Hulbert said. “These students are not able to complete this work at home. Being on the distance learning is not helping our students at all.”
Sollitto said the district does plan to look at what it can do for students who have trouble with virtual education.
“There are some conversations we’re going to have about providing some support if we go to distance learning,” he said.
The sentiment was repeated by School Committee Chairman Alexandra LeClaire.
“This is an ongoing, continual conversation,” LeClair said. “We will do what we can.”
The closure of all Burrillville schools, effective tomorrow, Wednesday, Dec. 9, will run through the end of winter break on Monday, Jan. 4. But it will be at Sollitto’s discretion to determine if the break should be extended until the committee can meet again in January.
“This is not meant to be long-term,” he said. “Hopefully the instances start to go in the right direction.”
“We all want kids back in school safely. We just don’t have enough people to supervise kids. I agree if we could provide in-person safely, then we would do that.”