NORTH SMITHFIELD –  Many parents have expressed gratitude for efforts to keep classrooms open in North Smithfield, even as some surrounding districts halt in-person instruction amid a surging pandemic.

But for some longtime teachers, the push toward keeping physical schools in session may have prompted an end their career in education.

According to Supt. Michael St. Jean, six teachers have retired from North Smithfield schools since August, taking with them decades of experience – and leaving district officials with few ways to fully thank them for their contributions.

“This is all very impersonal,” St. Jean said at a School Committee meeting last week as he announced the departure of the three latest: Sherry Senecal, Claire McWilliams and Roberta Palumbo.

Palumbo has worked for 24 years as a foreign language teacher at North Smithfield High School, serving for many years as advisor for the Spanish Club. A Glocester resident, Palumbo enjoyed sharing her love of the Spanish language and culture with her students and staff, and is well-known as an excellent cook, who would share her home-cooked meals with other faculty members.

“She made it a point to bring students out every year to experience Spanish culture and cuisine,” said Principal Timothy McGee. “We wish her the best of luck in her future endeavors.”

Senecal, a grade 4 teacher at North Smithfield Elementary School, has worked for the district for 23 years, serving in 2017 on a committee to reform k-5 report cards. The longtime teacher is married to Bruce Senecal, a former sergeant for the North Smithfield Police Department

In June, Senecal said goodbye to last year’s 4th grade class via a video message.

“Even those these last few months have been kind of strange, I hope you remember all the good times we had,” Senecal said.

McWilliams joined the district in 2004, working for the past 17 years as a special education and arts teacher at North Smithfield Elementary School.

Her previous experience included a job in the Smithfield School District, where she was a teacher of a self-contained classroom in a group home for girls in state custody. The teacher also worked in special education for seven years for the East Providence School District, and the Alief Independent School District located in southwest Houston, Texas.

McWilliams received a bachelor’s in art and special education from Stephen Austin State University, a master’s degree in education from Lesley University, and holds a doctorate in education leadership from Northeastern University.  In North Smithfield, she’s served as a co-teacher in English and math, and has been a co-chair for the School Improvement Team, along with serving on the Professional Development Advisory Board, the District Evaluation Committee, and the District Technology Committee.

“That’s a lot of experience,” St. Jean noted of the three’s cumulative contributions.

In March, McWilliams was interviewed by The Public’s Radio to discuss her concerns with the COVID-19 virus. At the time, Rhode Island schools were on a one-week break, taking April vacation early as a short-term way to address the pandemic. The 67-year-old noted that with health officials across the globe telling people to stay away from crowds, she was not comfortable returning to the classroom.

“Things were being cancelled, but yet I had to go in every day and do my job which was very, very scary for me,” McWilliams said in an interview. “I am in the target age group. If they’re shutting down restaurants and bars and movie theaters, I just think it would be extremely irresponsible to ask students and teachers to go back into large groups.”

Now, with the pandemic raging on and North Smithfield schools still planning only a short-term break from in-person learning, the lifelong educator has joined the list of retirements.

“As I said in the past, it’s always difficult to see our valued teachers leave us for retirement purposes, but the circumstances of this virus just make it so much more difficult,” said School Committee Vice Chairwoman Jean Meo.

St. Jean said that once vaccines become more widely available and it becomes safe, he hopes to bring back all of this year’s retired educators for a celebration of their careers, an idea suggested by NSES Principal Jennifer Daignault and Asst. Principal Rachel Savatore.

“These three teachers represent a lot of years of dedication to our students,” said Meo. “I hope they realize how much we appreciate their effort and their commitment to our school system and how much they will be missed.”

From left are McWilliams, Palumbo and Senecal
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