St. Jean: No distance learning for N.S students returning full time in fall

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NORTH SMITHFIELD – While statewide guidance around mask wearing and other safety protocols for fall are still evolving, some decisions regarding how schools will look when students return this year seem fairly certain in North Smithfield, and the hybrid model, where teachers attempt to educate students both in the classroom and at home, is off the table.

Supt. Michael St. Jean said this week that the district is on track to offer full, in person, five-day-a-week instruction, exclusively.

“We will not be offering a distance learning choice for families,” St. Jean told the School Committee at a meeting on Tuesday, July 20. “Our classrooms will not be live streaming next year. The teacher’s focus is on the kid, in the room, in front of him or her.”

St. Jean said that if an unvaccinated student tests positive for COVID-19 or has close exposure, they will need to quarantine for seven days under state guidelines. The student will receive a work packet from their school, but unlike last year, they will not be able to participate from home.

“We will continue to have outbreaks of COVID in our classrooms,” St. Jean said, noting that students who have been vaccinated, meanwhile, can continue to attend school following exposure.

It is also a near certainty that masks will be mandated on buses when school resumes, under federal public transportation guidelines.

But the superintendent noted that other elements of how schools will operate during the upcoming year are far less clear.

“We’re still waiting for the Department of Ed(ucation) for some of the guidance,” he said, pointing to the issue of masks. “Basically, the state and the Department of Health is leaving it up to every district to come up with their own policies and protocols with how we handle COVID.”

“Essentially, it looks like every district for themselves, which is problematic,” St. Jean added. “As you know, masking is political.”

Under a policy provided this week by the district’s legal counsel, masks in schools, he noted, are recommended, but optional. The School Committee has the power to change that, however, and require masking at certain grade levels, at certain schools or in certain situations.

“I can’t mandate masks,” St. Jean said, adding,”I would recommend that at least at the elementary school – at NSES – where everybody is under 12 and nobody has a vaccination, that masks are considered for the students.”

The Rhode Island Interscholastic League has the authority to require masking for athletes, but has also yet to issue directives.

The superintendent noted that the issue is further complicated by the fact that school officials can’t ask students in advance if they’ve received a vaccine.

“We’re not going to ask students if they’ve been vaccinated as they walk through the door,” he said, noting that protocol changes in the case of an outbreak.

The Department of Health will not be providing testing or contact tracing like last year, however, and has recommended that districts hire additional staff for the tasks.

School Committee Chairman James Lombardi pointed out that while the final decision may come down to officials in each district, North Smithfield is working closely with neighboring communities.

“We’re doing things that are similar to other districts,” Lombardi said. “Many of us have the same attorney.”

“We’re encouraging people who want to wear masks to wear them,” the chairman added.

St. Jean noted that a group of local superintendents discussed the issue this week and has requested clearer guidance and possible direction from the state Department of Education and the Department of Health.

“I’m going to be following guidance from the Department of Health and the CDC,” he said. “We will figure it out. We will keep our buildings safe.”

The superintendent said he expects to have far more details regarding guidance on mask requirements by the School Committee’s next meeting in August.

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