NORTH KINGSTOWN – After hundreds of parents requested that their children take part in distance learning for the upcoming academic year, rather than return to in-person learning, the North Kingstown School Committee on Saturday discussed options to form a Distance Learning Academy. After discussion, the committee approved a plan that would transfer existing staff and hire new teachers for distance learning, though the plan will require an additional $1 million.

While Gov. Gina Raimondo announced on Monday that schools could reopen under plans that included COVID-19-related guidelines and mandates, several North Kingstown parents still felt uneasy about sending their children back to in-person learning.

Last month, the school department issued a survey to parents around the district that asked whether they would prefer to have their children take part in distance learning or in-person learning. The commitment, according to the survey, would have to be made for the entire fall semester.

Eight-hundred students, or 20 percent of the district, requested to take part in full-time distance learning. Out of the 800 North Kingstown students who requested to participate in distance learning, about 300 were elementary schoolers.

And though middle and high schoolers who opted into distance learning will be following along with their regular in-person classes via livestream or a recording, the hundreds of elementary schoolers will require a specific group of teachers to provide instruction directly through remote learning.

According to superintendent Philip Auger, the 300 elementary students who opted into the Distance Learning Academy would require 16 additional teachers in total. Though the department currently has three unassigned budgeted teachers that could transition to distance learning, another 13 would have to be hired or reassigned.

Last Tuesday, Auger presented three options: hiring 13 additional teachers; transferring nine teachers to distance learning, and hiring an additional four; or, the most “radical” of the options, temporarily reassigning students and teachers from Forest Park Elementary School to Quidnessett Elementary and Fishing Cove Elementary Schools.

While Auger initially recommended last Tuesday that the committee consider the option of moving students from Forest Park, the proposal was met with a great deal of pushback from parents and members of the community. Nearly 600 people watched Saturday’s livestream of the school committee meeting, with many attending out of concern of the Forest Park proposal.

But right at the onset of Saturday’s meeting, Auger said the Forest Park proposal was being taken off the table in response to the uproar.

“I just want to take the edge off from everything and let everyone know […] that my proposal to the school committee will not include moving students from Forest Park,” Auger said. “I know a lot of people have tuned in [to the meeting] because of those concerns. I will go through my whole rationale as to what proposals I am making.”

Rather than recommending the committee go forward with any of the three options, Auger presented a new fourth option, which included elements of the other proposals, and up to a $1 million price tag. The committee ultimately approved the fourth option.

The fourth option would see a transfer of existing district resources, as well as the hiring of one-year elementary classroom teachers and additional short-term district wide health and social-emotional support capabilities.

According to Auger’s presentation, this option would fill out instructional and administrative needs in the Distance Learning Academy, reduce class sizes at other elementary schools for safety, and provide additional health and social-emotional support for all schools.  It also eliminates the need to close Forest Park and relocate students, while adding administrative control over the Distance Learning Academy and addressing “all needs for district staffing, regardless of declared reopening scenarios.”

The plan, however, requires funding implications of approximately $1 million. In order to cover costs, Auger recommended that the school committee take $500,000 from its capital reserve fund and request a $500,000 one-time capital funding from the town.  

“You would be looking to have some funding to take care of some of these needs,” he said. “My proposal here is to help us to give us the money that we need, so we can address all district staffing.”

Alternatively, if the additional funding is not approved by the town council, Auger will have to propose $500,000 in cuts to other areas.

“That absolutely will not be easy,” he said. “But we’ll do everything we can to make that work.”

Auger added that funding for new hires, combined with transferring some of the existing staff, could allow in-person classroom sizes to stay under 20 students.

“It will include some movement of people from in-school classes to distance learning classes,” Auger said. “It will give some allowance to the district to pay for a part time administrator to help with the distance learning.”

He also said that while he was normally hesitant about using the school department’s capital reserve funds, they are there to cover the costs of one-time items. Hopefully, he added, these new hires for the Distance Learning Academy would be needed for this year only.

“Capital reserve or fund balance money that we have is typically funds we want to save for one-time items,” he said. “Given the circumstances, we have what will hopefully be a one-time need. That’s the way I feel we can find what we need.”

“Having that funding made available will give us the opportunity to take care of all these needs,” he said.

He added that, as with everything else under the umbrella of COVID-19, the school department had to remain flexible and ready for any potential changes mandated by the state.

School committee chair Greg Blasbalg also said he was concerned about using the capital reserve funds, but said the new hires would be “hopefully temporary.”

“I for one am very hesitant to use fund balance to pay for anything that is a recurring expense,” he said. “These additional positions are hopefully temporary.”

However, Blasbalg said that dipping into the capital reserve funds, at a time when the amount of state aid to education is still unknown, is a “scary place to be.”

“We still do not have a state budget [or state aid numbers],” Blasbalg said. “It’s a scary place to be.”

But Blasbalg added that, in recent discussions with some town council members, he was confident that the town would be able to provide the additional $500,000 needed for the Distance Learning Academy. He also requested that, when using the $500,000 from the capital reserve fund, Auger prioritize availability and flexibility when executing this plan, and saving money wherever possible.

The school committee unanimously approved the fourth option presented by Auger. Additionally, members also approved the use of $500,000 from the school department’s capital reserve fund, while also approving a request to the town council for an additional $500,000. The total $1 million, according to the motion, was to cover “the addition of and funding sources for unbudgeted positions for FY21.”

School committee member Jacob Mather also made a motion that the school committee approve a continuation of full distance learning, adding that it was the safest option.

“I have major hesitations about returning to in-person learning. I think it’s unnecessarily risky and irresponsible,” Mather said. “I strongly think that we should be doing the best thing we can do to keep our kids safe in a responsible way.”

The committee rejected the motion by a 4 to 1 vote.

After the meeting, the school committee also sent a resolution to the town council, requesting the additional $500,000.

“The adopted FY21 North Kingstown School Department budget does not have sufficient funding to provide all the capabilities necessary to implement the more flexible attendance option plan,” the resolution reads, adding that the committee was requesting that the town council “make an additional supplemental appropriation to the North Kingstown School Department in the amount of $500,000.”

In past meetings, members of the council have expressed readiness to help the school department in any way it can.

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