EAST GREENWICH – This Monday marked the beginning of a eight-day, temporary return to online learning for students in East Greenwich – brought on due to serious staffing shortages. 

Over a two-week instructional period, which began this week and will exclude the holiday break, students will be learning from home. When in-person instruction resumes on Jan. 11, the district hopes to have better classroom coverage. 

“The district is averaging about 70 absences a day,” according to Superintendent Alexis Meyer, “with only about a 50 percent fill rate.”

When Meyer appeared before the school committee the week before with this recommendation, she stressed how day-to-day staffing has become a serious issue – especially at Cole Middle School. On some days, Meyer and Assistant Superintendent Michael Podraza have had to consider sending students home because of inadequate staffing.   

While a majority of the committee had already approved this temporary move back to distance learning, Superintendent Alexis Meyer reiterated the reasons for her recommendation at last Thursday’s meeting. 

When comparing absences from one year to the next, the uptick is clear and overwhelmingly apparent. On one particular day in December 2019, the district had 42.5 absences – all for a multitude of reasons, ranging from conference trips and sick days, to workers compensation. 

This year, on Dec. 10, East Greenwich had 77 staff members out, according to Meyer.

And as of Dec. 15, the district also had 15 staff members that were isolating or quarantining – though Meyer pointed out that these cases are not necessarily a result of an exposure in the schools, and that staff could be coming into contact with the virus through other means. 

The superintendent also provided school committee members with a graphic to indicate how many classes, on an average morning, that need to be covered by a teacher – not just a substitute. The date she used to highlight this challenge, Dec. 8, preceded her recommendation to the committee.

“It’s a really difficult time for everybody, and everybody is stretched thin,” School Committee Chair Anne Musella commented. “Our schools are stretched, our families are stretched – so I think we all really appreciate that it’s a really difficult time.” 

Meyer also shared the latest information about COVID-19 cases in the district, which as of last Thursday included 36  students and impacted 14 staff members. 

In order to prevent potential spread in the schools, Rhode Island Department of Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green had recommended that districts utilize distance learning for Jan. 4 – 6, which doesn’t change plans in East Greenwich too much.

According to Meyer, the only people this three day window will affect is a handful of special needs students who will continue to learn in-person will the rest of the district continues its studies online. During the three day window that the commissioner has requested, only the custodial staff will be in the buildings. 

While students and families may be able to utilize testing or continue self-quarantines during these days, Meyer stressed the district’s tougher guidelines around the need to quarantine. 

East Greenwich will continue to require a full, 14 days of quarantine for anyone whose traveled to location with a positivity rate of greater than 5 percent and anyone who is a close household contact of someone who has tested positive. 

The district will be more flexible with close contacts from outside of the home, however, and follow the new set of guidelines from the state. Individuals who were a close contact, meaning they’ve come within 6 feet of someone with COVID-19 for 15 minutes or more, will only be required to quarantine for 10 days. 

This period can be shortened even further, down to seven days, provided the individual received a negative COVID-19 test result at least five days after their last known exposure. 

All of this is provided on the fact that the individual does not begin experiencing any symptoms in this time frame. 

“Remember the three W’s – wear a mask, wash your hands and watch your distance,” Meyer said. “Our ability to continue with in-person learning, certainly with the holidays before us, are going to rely on people following the rules.”

“Especially those social gathering rules,” she added. 

As difficult as it may be at this time of the year, families are encouraged to limit social activities outside of the home and only leave when absolutely necessary. 

“The data is quite clear that that is where the spread is happening, and it largely impacts other settings,” Meyer said. 

While the picture may appear bleak at the moment, Meyer said she agrees with Musella that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. She pointed out that East Greenwich could likely be a vaccine distribution center in the near future, and they’ll be even more testing available after the holidays. And some are taking recommendations even more seriously. 

“The guidelines that are coming from the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) are really on all of us to do the right thing in these next few weeks,” Meyer said. “We all know that in-person is the best place for our students to be.”

School committee members have received a wide array of correspondence from the community on the topic of distance learning, and some people have asked about the metrics used to establish a need for a pause, as well as the possibility of keeping some schools and grade levels learning in-person as opposed to others. 

“We always want to deliberate and provide well-reasoned decisions, but we also have to trust the judgment of our superintendent, who is on the frontline,” Musella said. “It’s a balance. We have a responsibility to be fully informed, but at the same time, when administrators and faculty give us the impression that they’re in triage mode, we’re also going to adjust accordingly.”

“I appreciate everyone’s collective patience,” she added. “Those of us who didn’t grow up here, moved here for the schools – almost unilaterally. It’s the teachers who are delivering that education that we all moved here for, that we’re paying higher taxes for.” 

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