NORTH KINGSTOWN – Though nothing is set in stone, superintendent Philip Auger discussed preliminary plans for reopening North Kingstown schools in the fall, going over possible procedures that would see a mixture of both in-school and distance learning.

Auger said that all early plans could be changed at a moment’s notice, calling the situation a “moving target.”

“I’m sure a lot of folks are wondering about September and reopening school,” Auger said during Tuesday’s school committee meeting. “That is a topic we have been working on seemingly nonstop for the last few weeks. There’s a lot of work to go.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all Rhode Island schools were closed in March, with administrators and teachers implementing distance learning for students. However, now that the school year is coming to a close, districts around the state are in the pre-planning stages for reopening schools next year.

 Auger said there wasn’t a “handbook with very simple directions” as to what the next school year would look like, though he said that the district was “gravitating towards a model” that would offer both distance learning and in-school learning.

“We’re gravitating toward a model where we’re going to be offering distance learning and in-school learning, and probably have some kind of choice for parents,” he said. “We realize that some of our students may have medical issues or issues where they just can’t be in school, and others may just prefer to continue with distance learning.”

He said the school year would likely “play out a little bit differently at every level,” with elementary schools having in-school learning all day, every day of the week, and middle schools and high schools offering a combination of in-school and distance learning.

At the middle and high school level, Auger said that there would be some classes where students can safely attend in person, while others might be more appropriate for distance learning.

“There are some classes where people can easily come in for and self-contain groups together, but in other cases there may be some course offerings we’ll have to do in a distance learning format,” Auger said.  

He also said the Gov. Gina Raimondo was expected to release a 180-calendar for the next school year sometime this week, which would give the department a better idea of how to move forward.

Another complication for the upcoming school year is busing, which will be particularly difficult to work around, given capacity restrictions and social distancing guidelines. Auger said the department was waiting on more definitive directions from the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE), Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) and Raimondo as to how busing would work.

“We need to get a lot more clarity from the department of education, the department of health and the governor,” he said.  

Auger said the district might have to alter busing zones to accommodate students while also sticking to guidelines.

And even routine protocols—such as the use of bathrooms and cleaning procedures—will have to be modified, as will programs like music, band and athletics.

He went on to say that North Kingstown might have to coordinate its plans with other school districts around the state, adding yet another potential obstacle to work around.

In order to get a better handle on the plans for the next school year, the district formed a reopening advisory group, which was mandated by RIDE.

The group is composed of nearly 30 people, including school committee chair Greg Blasbalg, administrators, teachers and parents.

“Just so the administration can present our ideas and get some feedback from this group on a regular basis about what they think of our ideas, and they can offer some other ideas, and so on and so forth,” Auger said.

The superintendent also said that the department was preparing a survey to be presented to the community, asking parents whether or not they would be comfortable sending their children back to school or if they would prefer distance learning.  

“I expect in the next few weeks to have a survey put out to the community to get started,” he said. “I think it’s important to know, for instance, if they did have a choice about coming back to school or continue distance learning, we would like to know what their preference is.”

He also said responses would be used for the sake of planning, and that parents wouldn’t be held to their initial answers on the survey.

The survey will also ask whether or not parents are interested in their children riding the bus.

“We would need to know if they would be willing to use a bus right now,” Auger said. “It’s an enclosed space, obviously, and I’m sure people have concerns about that.”

“That will help us to know what we would need to do to plan for the numbers they’re allowing on buses,” he continued. “We don’t know that for sure yet, and that’s just one of the indications of how there just isn’t a playbook.”

Committee member Lisa Hildebrand said that families needed to have an idea, as soon as possible, as to how next school year would look.

“Families need to know what the fall is going to look like, especially for the younger kids with childcare accommodations,” Hildebrand said. “Some of that stuff needs to be decided weeks if not months in advance.”

Auger said that the issue was at the forefront of his mind, and that it was the first point of discussion during every administrative meeting.  

“There’s a lot of discussion going on, a real sense of urgency to get a lot of these answers soon,” he said.

He went on to say that, hopefully by July 1, the department could release a more definitive model for the school year. However, he said that the district would have to prepare to change the plans at “a moment’s notice,” depending on mandates from Raimondo or a potential spike in COVID-19 cases in the fall.

“Hopefully by July 1, I can report out to the community a model that we intend to use,” he said. “But I would urge everyone to understand that this is a moving target, and a lot of the conditions the governor puts out this week might be things they have to change a month from now or two months from now.”

“We also need to be ready, at a moment’s notice [...] that we may have to switch to a distance learning model because suddenly there’s a spike in cases in Rhode Island,” he continued.

Auger and the school committee will continue discussions on reopening schools in the coming weeks.  

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