SOUTH KINGSTOWN — After much anticipation and concern on the part of families and students, Superintendent Linda Savastano presented a first draft of the district’s re-entry plans on Wednesday, offering a glimpse of what school might look like in the fall.
The plans, which detail alternated start times, stable groups, daily health screenings, aggressive cleaning and disinfecting schedules, and other challenges presented with in-person instruction, will hopefully give families the option of what’s best for their children.
Online, distance learning will still need to continue in parallel with in-person instruction, according to Savastano, especially considering the fact that students and teachers might have to quarantine themselves for two weeks at a time. She acknowledged that some families may not feel comfortable sending their children back to school, while others view face-to-face instruction as crucial to their child’s growth and learning.
“Whether we bring children back on Aug. 31 or not, we know, no matter what, we’re going to bring them back someday,” Savastano said. “We know that we may not feel as comfortable as we used to, we know that a vaccine is not necessarily going to make sure that we feel safe, and all of these pieces that we’re talking about here tonight will still need to take place.”
For the time being, the solution is to “have a plan that can support many scenarios for families,” while still giving children new classmates they can learn and grow relationships with. Savastano called these plans a first draft, though, noting that the situation is ever developing and can change at a moment’s notice.
Whether it’s a blended model with students alternating between online and in-person learning, or a limited model only available to the district’s most vulnerable students, Savastano said it’s imperative that the district be ready to quickly pivot and move toward on-line learning.
If the district moves on with in-person instruction, students and staff will be required to screen themselves on the CRUSH COVID App or RIDOH Symptom Checker Form daily, prior to coming to school. When it comes to getting to school, students are required to screen at home, on the bus and then again when they arrive at school.
Once inside the school building, all students and staff will be required to wear masks. The district will be providing masks at no cost to staff and students, though they may bring their own mask from home if they wish.
In addition to needing to wear a mask, students will be required to socially distance themselves from others and maintain their stable groups of up to 30 individuals, which includes other students and staff members.
School Committee Vice Chair Sarah Markey had commented on how high this number seemed to be, though Savastano pointed out that students may often be absent from the stable group — either due to a need to quarantine, or possibly because their families feel more comfortable with them learning from home. Stable groups won’t just be for the district’s youngest learners, and will be implemented at the high school and middle school levels too.
When students come back into their physical classroom, things will look a bit different, according to Savastano. Their classroom might not even be classrooms at all. In some cases, non-traditional spaces might be converted to instruction space, or activities might move outdoors. For classrooms big enough, desks and tables will be spaced out to create as much room as possible.
At the high school, Principal Chip McGair said they’re considering a change to the schedule that will hopefully mitigate movement and make it easier for stable groups to use a consistent space. During the first quarter, high school students and their stable group will have their first four periods. The latter four periods will be held during the second quarter.
As for class rotations, McGair presented plans for having only two extended periods a day. Which classes were meeting would alternate from day to day, but with staggered arrivals and departures, and only passing time, this would hopefully mitigate risks.
Four lunch periods will be offered, and students will be able to eat in the cafeteria or outside to help with potential spacing issues.
“State guidance will dictate what percentage of students will be allowed to be on campus on any given day,” according to McGair, and if it comes to the need for partial or limited in-person instruction, last name alphabetical order will determine who’ll be on campus or at home participating virtually.
Curtis Corner Middle School Principal Patricia Aull informed the school committee on Wednesday night that they’ll also be adopting at least four lunches, if not five, which will all be Grab N Go style.
Multiple locations will be used for lunch, including outdoor space, but Aull’s plans stress that stable groups, or “pods,” must maintain a distance of 14 feet from one another. Students within a stable group can be within three to six feet of each other, provided they’re wearing a mask.
Early on classroom instruction at Curtis Corner will focus on routines, rituals and social distancing guidelines, ensuring that all students understand and follow the rules. An electronic hall pass system must be used by everyone, bathrooms will be assigned to stable groups and hallways will be one way with identified six feet spacing. Each class will continue to have a virtual component, according to Aull, and teachers will continue to post lesson resources in Google Classroom.
When it comes to arrivals and dismissals, Aull said things will look different than in the past. Students may be assigned a door based upon how they are transported to school — with different locations for walkers, bussers and parent drop-off. Unlike years past, students won’t be using any lockers. Instead, all belongings will be kept in the classroom.
Matunuck Elementary Principal Elizabeth McGuire shared very similar plans with the committee, reemphasising a strong emphasis being placed around students’ health and wellbeing, and the importance of building rituals, routine and relationships to reinforce this message.
Staggering schedules will minimize the risk of students interacting in common spaces, but there’s plenty of other challenges within pods, like not being able to have bookshelves in the classroom.
“We have to be really creative and thoughtful to make systems that work and are purposeful,” McGuire said.
“We need kids to be happy and want to come to school every day, we need kids to feel safe and we need kids to be ready to learn,” she added. “We need kids to be able to maneuver this new normal, and a lot of teaching and instruction and thought needs to go into that.”
Savastano has begun discussions with staff about what next year will look like, and shared that she hopes to provide a questions and answer opportunity with families ahead of Aug. 31.
“It’s hard to design a plan that’s flexible for everybody when you’re not getting the guidelines before 48 hours something is due,” Savastano said. In some cases, like with student and staff attendance, there still hasn’t been full guidance provided. “We are moving forward with the best information we have today.”
More information from the Rhode Island Departments of Health and Education will be provided to districts later this month, according to Savastano.
School committee member Jacy Northup acknowledged that every parent, including herself, wants to know how to plan for the fall, but stressed that this information isn’t fully available yet.
“We don’t have the information yet,” Northup said. “As soon as we have concrete information and can get it out to the public and to the people who need to plan, we will.”
The committee isn’t sitting on information, she said, and they want every student to be successful and excited about entering the new school year.
Markey also noted that this is a developing and ever-changing situation, but said she felt uncomfortable asking students and teachers to put their health at risk to return to the classroom.
School committee member Kate Macinanti also expressed concerns, acknowledging that many people have moral dilemmas about returning back to the classroom. Macinanti read a statement from a teacher who wished to remain anonymous, expressing the enormous guilt she would feel if a student got sick and died.
“If I return to my distinct for in-person instruction, I am responsible for the safety of the students I will see,” Macinanti read from the anonymous statement. “I am saying that by returning to the classroom, I accept this responsibility, which means I accept that I’m part of the process that will result in students being exposed to COVID-19.”
“It’s my opinion that I am culpable in the death of any child in my district if I accept the terms of an in-person instruction,” the statement went on. “That is the question I am grappling with right now — can I accept my role in this, or do I risk my livelihood and tell my district I won’t take part?”
It’s a struggle and dilemma teachers are facing all across the country, Macinanti said, and in her opinion, “putting one life at risk is too many.”
School committee member Michelle Brousseau noted that returning to the classroom is especially risky for older teachers, and that over the past several months, support for teachers has significantly diminished.
“In March and April they were heroes, and now they’re just babysitters,” she said. “That’s what teachers are telling me.”
As the district continues to develop plans with the guidance they’re given, Savastano said she wants families to understand that they’re working to make it as flexible as possible.
“We designed a 100 percent, in-person model that could let all parents decide to be virtual,” she said. “That’s not common. I don’t know that you’ll find that model in many other districts in the state.”
In regards to comments from school committee members who expressed concerns for the health and safety of staff and students, Savastano said that she doesn’t feel like the district can pull it off, she won’t do it.
“If data doesn’t look right, we will strongly encourage folks to utilize that virtual side of our in-person plan,” she said.