atrubia@ricentral.com

NORTH KINGSTOWN – Over the weekend, the North Kingstown School Committee met to discuss and vote on various aspects of the school reopening plan, including the approval of a new high school schedule. Under the newly approved schedule, the in-person high school day will go from 7:15 a.m. and 1 p.m., and will alternate between distance learning every other day.

The special meeting was set to take place ahead of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s scheduled announcement on Monday, Aug. 31, concerning the statewide reopening plan in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.  And on Monday, Raimondo announced that schools could go forward with their full in-person plans, as approved by the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE). All public Rhode Island school plans were made in accordance with guidelines set by RIDE and the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH).

The school year is scheduled to begin on Sept. 14.  

The North Kingstown School District plans for the reopening of the high school have been discussed for weeks by school committee members, officials and the public. In his initial proposal to the committee and the public, superintendent Philip Auger outlined a plan for the high school that would see 50 percent of students returning to school at one time, alternating A and B days, with a mix of in-person and distance learning lessons. High schoolers would also take four classes the first semester, and another four classes during second, as opposed to eight classes over the entire year.

However, in the initial plans, the in-person high school day was proposed to begin at 7:15 a.m. and only go until 12 p.m.–something several parents around the district took issue with.

But after taking in concerns from the public, Auger and NKHS principal Barbara Morse presented new proposals for the high school schedule that would see in-person days elongated.

While Auger said it would not be possible to present a plan that would allow all high school students in school at once–due to transportation capacity on buses, social distancing issues and distance learning obstacles–he and his administrative team came up with two new proposals for the schedule.

The first new proposal would see the school day ending at 1 p.m., as opposed to 12 p.m., while the second proposal would stretch the day until 1:50 p.m., including plans to create more time and space available for lunch. (No other plans included a lunch option because of social distancing and staffing restraints.)

Auger recommended the option that would see the day ending at 1 p.m., which the committee ultimately approved.

The superintendent added that the option with the school day ending at 1:50 p.m. would not allow for distance learning check-ins and would require increased staffing and expenses to supervise lunch, making it a less preferable path forward.

The 1 p.m. option would not allow for lunch gatherings, though it would include a breakfast break.

Though the school day will be extended to 1 p.m., the schedule will still be four classes one semester and another four classes the next, which several parents have expressed concerns about.

According to Auger’s presentation, the daily needs for students include time for social and emotional check-ins; a schedule that could be adjusted for transition between in-person and distance learning; supervision for social distancing; food service for students, especially free and reduced; contractual items that improve curriculum and assessment; equal class periods; and check-ins with students who are distance learning, to the extent possible.  

Under the newly approved high school schedule ending at 1 p.m., the in-person days will include three 74 minute classes and one 83 minute class. Distance learning students will be expected to either watch a live streaming or a recording of the lessons on days they are not attending school in-person. However, the schedule will only allow for 15 minutes of distance learning check-ins at the end of the day, much less than the schedule that would have ended at 12 p.m. ,

The longer school day will also mean that students go even longer without receiving lunch.

Auger said that both in-person and distance learning students would be required to engage in new lessons daily.

“I know that’s been a question for a lot of people,” he said. “Everyone is getting a new lesson daily.”

He also said that there would be a “robust” virtual Academic Resource Center, allowing students to make up for lost distance learning check-in time. There will also be a Seminar Club to provide year-round support for advanced placement test takers.  

Auger also said that, compared to the spring semester, the expectations around distance learning for high schoolers will be much more strict in the fall, no longer allowing for “forgiveness” or “do no harm” grades. Teachers have the option to either live stream or upload recordings of their lessons, which students will be expected to follow and complete as if it were an in-person day, with attendance being counted.  

“In the spring, we were very forgiving, because we knew certain things were going on,” he said. “But those kinds of forgiveness will not be happening anymore.”

Though many parents still expressed concerns about the four-by-four class schedule, Auger said that there were several reasons for the split in classes over the two semesters. Most importantly, it reduces the amount of contacts per day, while also allowing for students to have more frequent contacts with teachers, taking a total of 10 in-person classes per month. It would also lessen exposure to teachers, with between 56 and 84 stable contacts per day.

Before a vote was taken by the committee, several parents spoke during public comment. And while nearly everyone who spoke on the topic of the high school schedule was grateful that the in-person day had been extended to 1 p.m., they still highlighted various components of the plan that gave them trouble.

Kara Martone, a parent of a rising sophomore, said she was “happy to hear about the extra hour in the plan that was presented,” though she still took issue with aspects of the plan, such as teachers having the choice between live streaming or recording lessons for students while they are distance learning.

In the agreement between the school department and the teachers’ union, teachers have until 8 p.m. to upload each day’s lesson, potentially giving students little time to watch and complete assignments in a timely manner.

“How are students supposed to keep up with the pace of a four-by-four schedule if their classes aren’t available until 8 pm?” Martone asked. “If it’s not going to be a live lesson at the same time as the kids in the building, it needs to be posted the morning of, or even the night before.”

Martone said that all students should be learning together, synchronously, regardless if it’s an in-person or distance learning day.

“The kids have to have the access at the same time, to remain on the schedule, to keep up the pace, and even be able to work together and study together with kids in their class,” she said.

Another parent, Christine Trask, also said she was concerned about lessons potentially being uploaded later in the day, rather than live-streamed, and questioned the four-by-four schedule.  

Sue Alexander, a fellow parent, echoed Martone and Trask, adding that the 8 p.m. deadline for teachers could result in students “working the night shift.”  

“I’m extremely confused about this 8 p.m. deadline,” she said. “If the teacher does not choose to live stream, they have until 8 p.m. to post the lesson.”

Other parents, like Kelly Healey, asked for more specific information as to how the distance learning schedules would work, while Jamie Orsi requested more efforts around communication be made by the school department.

Some parents also criticized the school administration for not offering an option that would include all high school students returning to in-person learning at the same time, on the same day. Auger pointed out that, under RIDE and the RIDOH’s guidelines and restrictions, it would not be possible. He also said that approximately 50 percent of Rhode Island districts have high school plans for either A and B schedules or full distance learning.  

Auger went on to say that, while he understood where parents were coming from about the 8 p.m. deadline, as well as the choice between recordings and live streams, all teachers wanted the same thing as guardians: to provide lessons in a clear, timely manner, whether it be in-person or distance learning. He also said the agreement with the teachers’ union was based on logistics.

“I know that they want the same thing,” he said. “They’re professionals, they want to reach their students, and they want to be teaching their students in as timely a way as possible.”

Several school committee members also said they were wary about teachers uploading lessons, and requested that they live stream their classes as much as possible. School committee member Jacob Mather, a proponent of going full distance learning, also said that even under the four-by-four schedule, there was still far too much contact between students and teachers.

The committee ultimately approved the high school schedule, with the day beginning at 7:15 and ending at 1 p.m. Additionally, the committee also approved a new mask wearing policy.

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