NORTH KINGSTOWN – After a busy and chaotic summer preparing for an unusual academic year, North Kingstown schools reopened this week, though under a new set of COVID-19-related guidelines. Two days into the new school year, superintendent Philip Auger provided the school committee with a brief update of how the schools were operating, for both in-person and distance learning.

Last month, the committee voted to form a Distance Learning Academy for the 300-plus elementary students who opted into it. Around 500 middle and high schoolers also requested to participate in distance learning for the first semester, though they are going to follow along with in-person classes via livestream or a recording. The hundreds of elementary schoolers, on the other hand, required its own group of teachers that had to be hired just days before the school year began.

Auger said that, over the last few weeks, assistant superintendent Denise Mancieri and elementary school principals around the district worked together to form the Distance Learning Academy.

“We’ve been very happy with the way the distance learning academy got put together,” he said. “Kudos to Dr. Mancieri and our elementary principals, they did a lot of work in the last few weeks organizing for this, interviewing and hiring people. It’s really come together well, we’re getting a lot of positive comments.”

He also said that he and Mancieri visited all of the district’s schools over the course of the two days.

“People were very excited to be back, kids and adults,” Auger said. “Kudos to everybody in the department for all of the work that they’re doing and for the work to prepare our kids to have minimal anxiety over this. That’s what I really felt, people were just happy to be back, they were ok with wearing a mask and eager to get to work.”

However, Auger said that the administration was still working out some issues, like looking to hire one more teacher for the Distance Learning Academy, along with a few other jobs in the district that still needed to be filled.

He also said that parents have started asking whether their children could ride the school bus, even if they didn’t previously request it when a survey was sent out over the summer. Others questioned if students could transition to or from the Distance Learning Academy before the semester was over.

Auger said that, while he didn’t have answers to those questions yet, he would be updating the list of frequently asked questions on the school department’s website with more information.

“We’re going to see how the numbers shake out,” Auger said. “There’s still a lot of questions out there that people have about what kind of options they still have at this point.”

During the public comment portion of the meeting, Kate Scott, a parent of two elementary schoolers in the Distance Learning Academy, spoke about how well it was going so far.

“We’re two days into distance learning, I have a first grader doing distance learning and a fourth grader doing distance learning,” Scott said. “And I have to say, their teachers are amazing. I wish we had them last year for distance learning.”

“Thank you for picking teachers who embrace technology and understand how our distance learning environment is set up,” she added.

But Scott asked what would happen to her children’s classes next semester, assuming schools return to full in-person learning.

“I’m hoping the conversations can start about what happens in five months when our kids are done with distance learning and we can hopefully transition back into a safe school environment for everybody,” Scott said.

Auger said that the school administration was taking everything “one step at a time.”

“I wish I could tell you what’s going to happen in February,” he said. “I can not. I’m not even sure what’s going to happen next week right now. We’re going to take this one step at a time. Whatever we do, we’re going to make sure we plan well in advance.”

Various committee members thanked the administration and staff members for putting together the reopening plan.

“Over the summer and over the past few months, this is a time when I really need to recognize the amazing administration and leaders we have in our district,” committee chair Greg Blasbalg said. “All of you folks have worked so hard, put in late nights and gone above and beyond to make this happen.”

“You guys have moved heaven and earth to not only get our buses running, get our schools open, but to create a completely parallel school system, within our school system, in a couple months,” he added.

Committee member Jacob Mather, who has two children in the Distance Learning Academy, said he “couldn’t be happier” with the way everything was going so far.    

“I was a huge advocate for distance learning, my kids are in distance learning right now–I’ve got a fifth grader and a second grader–and I literally couldn’t be happier with their teachers,” he said. “It’s only been two days and I’m sure there are many hiccups to come, but we are incredibly happy so far with the way everything’s going.”

The school committee also approved a legal agreement with the North Kingstown Bus Contractors Association (NKBCA), allowing buses to continue running under last year’s contract. After schools were closed in March, buses no longer needed to provide transportation for students, leaving the state of the contract with NKBCA up in the air.

However, over the summer, the administration was able to negotiate an agreement with NKBCA for the new academic year.

Mary Ann Carol, an attorney for the school department, said that the agreement would allow NKBCA to operate under last year’s contract, while also providing a partial payment for the money lost when the buses stopped running.

“That contract has expired, but they’ve agreed to work under that contract until we have the time to negotiate a new contract,” Carol said. “Now we have an agreement, we’ve given them a partial payment of what they lost and they have buses on the road.”

Blasbalg said it was a “fair agreement.”  

“Nobody expected March to stop the buses from running,” he said. “It wouldn’t be appropriate to give them the exact same amount they would have received had the buses run, but we understand they have expenses, and this agreement addresses both of those points.”

Committee member Robert Jones thanked the NKBCA for working with the school department to come to an agreement.

“We didn’t have to worry, we knew they would show up,” Jones said. “I just want to thank all of them.”

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