Coventry is among the latest of Rhode Island's school districts to jump to full remote learning amid soaring COVID-19 cases, the superintendent announced Thursday, shortly after Gov. Gina Raimondo urged districts to continue in-person learning.
The decision to switch to distance learning for the remainder of the month was made “out of an abundance of caution,” Supt. Craig Levis said in an announcement Thursday.
“This has been an extremely difficult decision to make but I believe it is in the best interest of our school community,” he said.
Levis has said several times over recent months that the district would do it’s best to keep students in school. But, as he pointed out this week, “decisions are fluid and can change quickly” amid the uncertainty brought on by the pandemic.
Levis pointed to Coventry’s high rate of coronavirus cases as one of the major reasons for closing the schools, noting that the town’s positivity rate is double that of the state, having risen from 12.6 percent last week to 15.3 percent this week.
Schools in Coventry have been operating under a couple of learning models, with most students in grades five and below learning in person four days per week with one day of distance learning, and those in grades six through 12 learning in person two days per week and from home the other three.
Students in Coventry — except for those in life skills and transition programs — will switch to full-time distance learning on Tuesday, and will continue learning remotely at least until after the upcoming break.
“We will continue to monitor the positivity rate throughout the holiday break and the impact this surge has on our students and staff,” Levis said.
The number of staff being asked to quarantine after experiencing symptoms or being identified as a close contact with someone who tested positive for the virus has been steadily increasing, Levis said, especially over the last several days.
“Our current reality is we do not have the staffing to maintain consistency next week,” Levis said. “We do not want to be forced to make a last minute switch to distance learning that does not give teachers and parents time to plan or prepare.”
Coventry is far from being the only town that’s struggled to staff schools adequately, as teachers and other staff are asked to quarantine.
“The people outside of the school department don’t realize that it’s not just the positive cases,” Sean Doyle, president of West Warwick’s teachers union, said during a West Warwick School Committee meeting this week. “It was the number of quarantines that basically rendered us unable to continue.”
West Warwick’s superintendent announced last month that schools would be making the switch to full distance learning. There, too, teacher quarantines were a major impetus behind that decision.
Doyle guessed that, before the move almost two weeks ago to distance learning, the school district was only a day or two away from being unable to staff its buildings.
Like in Coventry, students in West Warwick will remain under full distance learning through the break, scheduled to run from Dec. 23 through Jan. 1. The break is “well-timed," West Warwick Supt. Karen Tarasevich said during Tuesday’s school committee meeting.
“It’s too early to say what’s going to happen right after Christmas break,” she said, adding that “everybody’s in a little bit of a holding pattern to see what happens."
Despite switching to distance learning the week after Thanksgiving, virus cases in West Warwick’s schools are not slowing down, Tarasevich said.
As of Tuesday evening, the district had already recorded nearly 30 new virus cases among both adults and students in the first week of December, alone.
Tarasevich said she’s been speaking with Mark Knott, the town’s interim town manager, and Jeffrey Varone, the fire chief, about working together to ensure residents are taking precautions to stay healthy.
“I thought it would be a good idea — we all did — to join forces,” Tarasevich said. “To get the schools open, and the people back in, we need to have those numbers in a much better place.”
Doyle took a minute Tuesday to commend the superintendent and school committee for doing what’s necessary to “keep families, students and teachers safe through the pandemic.”
“I know it wasn’t an easy decision to take this break,” he added.
In his announcement, Levis thanked everyone in the school community for their sacrifices during the pandemic.
“I hope the decisions we make today allow us to return to in-person learning with the ability to sustain a level of staffing necessary to ensure the safety of all students,” Levis added.