NARRAGANSETT – With state regulations around distance learning becoming more accessible, the Narragansett School Committee Wednesday unanimously endorsed a first a reading of a new policy on emergency closures and professional learning days. Under the new policy, which must be approved in a second vote by the committee, the district would have the flexibility to enact remote learning days during school closures fueled by inclement weather or professional development (PD) periods.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, said Superintendent of Narragansett Schools Peter Cummings, there existed at the state level proposed legislation that would allow public school districts across the state to engage in remote learning on emergency closure days.
“There wasn’t a lot of movement on that because the regulations weren’t super clear and I think no one knew quite what to do with it and what capacity you needed to have,” said Cummings Wednesday. “Since COVID, with all the things that we’ve learned in how to do remote learning, [the Rhode Island Department of Education] (RIDE) has revised their regulations to make them a little bit more accessible.”
When crafting school calendars for the academic year, school committees and districts must allow for anticipated make up days due to inclement weather and PD sessions for teachers and faculty, which take place within schools, utilize school materials and technology and occur during the week. The result is committees and districts finding a balance between ending the academic year at a reasonable date that still allows for a lengthy summer while also taking into account the possibility of multiple snow days and required PD time.
The new policy, if ultimately approved, would give the Narragansett School System flexibility. RIDE, according to Cummings, in the wake of last year’s mass rollout of distance learning, is now allowing up to four remote learning days for PD sessions and an additional five remote learning days for other reasons, including emergency closures per academic year. Once approved, districts submit plans to RIDE for state approval.
Cummings suggested the first two potential emergency closure days be full closures, and remote learning days would come into effect after the district experiences more than two emergency closures in the interest of ending the academic year at a reasonable date.
“Let the kids play in the snow [on the first two emergency closure days],” he said. “At a certain point, you could choose that any more than two emergency closure days should be remote learning days because then we’re really getting into the summer.”
The superintendent noted that power outages could also effect the viability of remote learning days during snow storms and other weather-related events that would physically close schools for the day.
“[Hypothetically] if we have a really cold day in November, and it’s too cold to go to the bus stop, we have to cancel school, everyone has internet access but there’s no snow and no one can go outside, that should probably be a remote learning day,” said Cummings as a means of providing an example to the committee of the proposed policy’s flexibility.
Similarly, the school could convene remote learning on days when emergencies occur to school facilities and infrastructure, such as water leaks, that would make in-person attendance impossible.
Narragansett School Committee Chair Tammy McNeiece praised the proposal’s flexibility and discretion it would provide the committee. Ultimately, decisions on school closures come down to the district’s superintendent.
There is currently no model policy in the state for the new idea, though many public districts are now considering similar language to the policy proposed locally. School committee member Alexander Menzies asked about the content that would be taught during remote learning days, citing data from RIDE that some learning material is better absorbed than other curricula when a digital learning setting is being utilized. Cummings said instruction would still place over Zoom and teachers would be interacting with students on the video communications platform.
“We know that remote learning isn’t as good as in-person learning and we want kids in school as much as possible,” he said. “At the same time, we also understand that there is a cultural celebration of a snow day in New England, so going to full remote learning no matter what on a snow day just might not be practical. Especially here, we have a lot of power outages on a true snow day, and that could be very disruptive to a remote learning day.”
“It’s new for all of us,” Cummings added. “In my experience in Narragansett, there are some storms that are clearly school cancellation makeup days and there have been other storms that it is dangerous to drive and because of that we can’t get to school in a safe way, but the bulk of the mid morning to the early afternoon is a little bit more clear and accessible. I’m not a weather person, we really do our best to make judgments that keep students and staff as safe as possible, and at the same time we don’t want to get to a place where we’re going to school until the end of June.”
Ultimately, a first reading of the policy was unanimously endorsed by the committee.