NORTH SMITHFIELD – While Supt. Michael St. Jean would not confirm how many students were affected, disciplinary actions were followed in North Smithfield schools for students who did not comply with masking and quarantine requirements on the first day on Tuesday, Aug. 31, according to local parents.
At least one student was sent home from North Smithfield High School for failure to wear a mask, according to reports from several parents, and another was told he must return home to quarantine with the rest of the football team, despite presenting a rapid test with negative results.
The superintendent had warned families that students would not be allowed in school buildings without a mask in an email this week, noting the district would follow the same requirement as the previous school year.
“For those who strongly disagree with wearing a mask, please understand that schools must follow state and federal laws, policies, and requirements,” St. Jean noted. “You can certainly continue to voice your opinions with your elected officials, but understand that as principals, teachers, instructional assistants, nurses, secretaries, custodians, bus drivers, and kitchen workers, we do not have the individual or collective means to waive or ignore this requirement.”
On Tuesday, it seems most complied with the mandate, with all schools reporting a successful opening day, according to the superintendent.
Asked about the district’s mask enforcement policy and how many students were disciplined on day one, St. Jean responded, “In order to ensure student privacy, I can’t comment on discipline issues whether it is today or any other day.”
“I walked through the schools and saw a lot of students doing what they needed to do and seemingly happy to be back in school among their friends,” St. Jean said.
NRI NOW specified that questions pertained to the number of students affected and the policy, not the names or personal information of specific students, but did not receive a response.
At the high school, the entire football team was ordered on quarantine after one football practice following confirmation of an asymptomatic case, according to Stephen Corriveau, parent of a player and member of the North Smithfield Town Council.
Several parents contacted NRI NOW to discuss issues with the first day back, but asked to remain anonymous citing fear of retribution against their children.
Nearly all confirmed the same story: a football player who presented a negative rapid test was rejected by the school nurse and had to wait alone in a small room until he could be picked up. Another was reportedly not allowed to attend school for failure to comply with the mask mandate.
Asked if he thought answers on the enforcement policy or the number of students affected would be exempt from public records law, or interfere with privacy concerns, Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island ACLU responded, “No. That’s ridiculous.”
At the high school, a uniformed officer reportedly greeted students as they arrived, and a police cruiser was parked in front of the building.
Some parents said their children came home upset after being told they would have to leave class if masks fell below the nose. Corriveau said his daughter was scolded in the lunchroom for having her mask down when she wasn’t eating.
He noted that there is no specific policy or discipline on the books for how to enforce the mask mandate issued by Gov. Dan McKee.
“I would hope that they do not consider it disciplinary action,” he said of the decision to have some students return home. “I just want to know if procedures are going to be followed, if there’s consistency, and if it makes sense.”
According to a playbook provided to districts by the Rhode Island Department of Health, in many instances, all players on a sports team are counted as close contacts when there’s a positive case, due to proximity and high levels of exertion, which increases the risk for transmission of droplets.
The playbook also dictates that school leaders have the authority to ask students and staff to stay home while RIDOH completes COVID-19 case investigations.
But Corriveau noted that his son has not yet been given school work – or functional instructions on how to obtain it – during his time in quarantine. He said when he tried to call the school to receive his son’s work, he was told to ask the teachers.
Students can typically check on their work and communicate with teachers via Google Classroom, but he said his child has not been given the needed code – likely as a result of missing his first day.
“They don’t have contact information,” Corriveau said of the students trying to get work from teachers. “All they’re doing is rejecting the child, and they’re not even giving them school work.”
He also pointed out that RIDOH guidelines state that policy is to ask parents if their child has been in close proximity to positive cases during contact tracing, but he was never contacted regarding his son.
The players were reportedly able to return to school on Wednesday.
And all parents still seemed to agree that the state-issued mandate is by far preferable to distance learning.
And Corriveau noted that it’s a tough issue to navigate for any district.
“I give the school a lot of credit,” he said. “I don’t envy the position they’re in.”
Although he voted against creating a mandate for face coverings when the issue came before the School Committee, Chairman James Lombardi expressed similar sentiments.
“The superintendent is in a very difficult situation,” said Lombardi. “He’s following directives from the state.”