By LAURA WEICK Although Warwick plans to pursue remote learning for the majority of its students - despite pushback from the governor, the Warwick School Committee approved a plan for special education, Warwick Early Learning Center (WELC) and Warwick
Although Warwick plans to pursue remote learning for the majority of its students – despite pushback from the governor, the Warwick School Committee approved a plan for special education, Warwick Early Learning Center (WELC) and Warwick Area Career and Technical Center (WACTC) students to return to in-person classes this fall. However, kindergarten students will start the school year online.
The proposal from the superintendent’s office called for the district’s approximately 500 kindergarten students to return to in-person learning at Warwick Veterans Middle School alongside approximately 450 special education students. Kindergarteners will follow a hybrid model in which half of the students go to in-person classes Tuesday and Thursday, while the other half do so Wednesday and Friday. Special education students would attend in-person school every day of the week except Monday, which is a professional development day.
On a typical day in this plan, the building would operate at around 65 percent capacity, according to Director of Elementary Education Lynne Dambruch.
Warwick Veterans is one of the only schools in the district that meets air circulation requirements, which School Committee members explained last week would be necessary in order to safely reopen without spreading COVID-19. All students and faculty will be required to wear masks and socially distance.
Dambruch argued that kindergarten students need in-person learning to build foundational English, math and social-emotional skills that can’t be taught online. Jennifer Connelly, director of special services at Warwick Schools, explained that special education students have similar needs. She also explained that special education evaluations were overdue, so performing those soon are a priority.
“A lot of special education focuses on independent living skills and things like [activities of daily living] skills, washing hands, using the restroom appropriately, it does require hands-on instruction,” Connelly said. “Many of these students need related services so they get speech and language, occupational therapy and physical therapy. And in addition, there's a great deal of work that needs mental health support and counseling that we've provided.”
About 65 WELC preschool students with special needs would attend school in-person under this plan at Drum Rock, which was the former location of the WELC until it moved to John Brown Francis. Dambruch said more students may join this class as they are identified throughout the school year. Finally, about 450 WACTC students would return to their building for classes, since many of their disciplines such as electronics, culinary arts and construction require hands-on work that cannot be duplicated online, according to former WACTC Director William McCaffrey, who is now director of secondary education.
All students will be able to opt for remote learning if they wish.
“This plan is not perfect,” Superintendent Philip Thornton said regarding the original plan to bring all four groups back to school. “The plan calls for moving of programs, some staff, teaching space is being moved. Not much about this is convenient. We're in a pandemic, it's not going to end anytime soon, I think. But I do think we need to be mindful about the plans that we can put in place to help students in this case, we can help a significant number of students in Warwick.”
The committee voted 4-1 to amend the proposal so kindergarten would not meet in-person. David Testa was the dissenting vote. Members were concerned that this would put too many people in the building and risk additional virus spread. They also argued that many kindergarten students’ needs were also needed for older elementary school students, yet they are learning remotely, while the needs of special education students, career and technical students and preschoolers were more pressing.
“Personally, I'm a big no for the kindergarten,” School Committee Member Judith Cobden said. “I thought we were going to use Vets for our special needs kids, and I really think that they deserve [that] and we have to try our best for them. And I know that we can probably, hopefully, I mean, it's still a big question, do it safely. That is a big school and it can be spread out. I mean, we're looking with kindergarten, we don't have six [students] in these classrooms.”
Cobden was also concerned that younger children could spread the virus at a greater rate than older special education students, staff and faculty.
“I also read the scientific stuff that came out today, on young children,” Cobden said. “They are the biggest carriers of this disease. And they’re saying that the capacity of the virus that [is] their lungs and they're asymptomatic is like, more, more of a capacity than those that are actually sick in the hospital. And these kids are walking around with that, and they're asymptomatic. That's frightening to me.”
Testa said the district should try to have as many students gain an in-person learning experience as possible, as long as it is safe.
“I don't think this is an unsafe plan by any stretch of the imagination,” Testa said. “I think it takes the initial hurdles of building issues, puts them aside, or it allows us to keep our promise on the motion from last week. It eliminates all the obstacles that I previously articulated. It allows us to put our custodial resources in concentrated spots, so we don't have to worry about hiring six additional people. It gives these kindergarteners who everyone would preface it by saying everybody agrees that impersonal learning is better than distance learning. That's an inarguable point. So the district should be striving to do everything in its power to get as many kids in-person learning as possible.”
The committee discussed potentially phasing in kindergarteners to in-person learning if the pandemic declines, but no official decisions have been made.
“I just don't want to see us potentially bite off more than we can chew,” School Committee Member Kyle Adams said. “And in no way am I saying that we are, I'm just saying that there is a potential for us to be, especially if we're going to be adding kindergarten kids. And it's not just the students that we have to be concerned about. It's also the faculty and stuff. And I think calling it a building-related issue all that people are concerned about is wrong because it's not just that it's people who are concerned for their safety. And like the amount of times that we we've been told that they're scared for their own health, and that's something that will weigh heavily on me.”
School Committee Chairwoman Karen Bachus was concerned that alternating groups of kindergarten students can bring in more spread to special needs students if they are moving back and forth from school, home and other activities. Kevin Oliver, facilities, maintenance and operations manager said that buildings would be regularly sanitized, with plans to have 12 custodians at Warwick Veterans in the daytime, with six at night. Other schools would receive custodial staffing as well.
Oliver also explained that the state provided Warwick with about 3,500 adult masks, 4,500 children’s masks, 195 surgical masks, 95 N95 masks, 38 face shields and 169 thermometers. The School Committee asked how young students and those with special needs will tolerate handling a mask all day, but Connelly offered reassurance.
“I just want to know that the very students that we're planning for that are the students that struggle the most with behavior and will struggle with wearing masks and following directions and all that I just want to be crystal clear about that,” Connelly said. “That being said, our special education teachers are stellar. They know their students. You know, can you talk today about what to do with students who won't wear masks, I talked about the policy that we put in place and how it's not going to be mandated per our previous policy, but a special educator can make accommodations to make an exception and a lot them were saying, I know I could get students to build towards wearing a mask. It may not happen day one, but I can teach them how to do it and get it on over time.”
After the committee approved the amendment to remove kindergarteners from the proposal, the committee voted unanimously to implement the plan.
Parent, teacher concerns taken into account
During the open forum at the beginning of the meeting, multiple teachers and parents shared their concerns with learning in-person or online.
Over 20 kindergarten teachers and teaching aides wrote a joint letter asking the committee to teach students remotely for the safety of teachers and students alike. Some of the teachers also wrote individual letters on the matter.
“The governor and her press conference yesterday stated and I quote, public health experts say you're 19 times more likely to get the virus indoors versus outdoors,” Diana Wade, a kindergarten teacher at Warwick Neck Elementary School, wrote in a letter read at open forum. “19 times. But somehow she feels that having us three feet away from students since we cannot accommodate a six-foot distance as required everywhere else in the state is a safe plan. She also admitted that by opening schools, there would definitely be cases of COVID-19 and shared her three scenario plan for what to do when it happens. Yet we cannot yet accommodate timely testing or results. We are still unable to get tested within 24 hours and the current average turnaround time is two to three days. So now we are all set that home to quarantine, and then this scenario continues to repeat until we are all set home for the inevitable pull distance learning anyway. How is this educational upheaval in the students and parents best interests?”
Some parents were concerned that their child would be unable to learn remotely for another semester.
“ If my daughter is going to have to be learning remotely, I will not be able to work with her and I don't know who will,” Mimi Rotorman, a parent of an autistic kindergartener and a teacher at the Gordon School in East Providence, said. “There are very few options that parents with special needs children have when finding childcare. If all the students are going to be remote learning surely there's more physical space to bring back the youngest students in ways that are safe for them and their teachers.”
Others argued that having special education students return to in-person school while students without special needs would be able to learn from home was inequitable, putting vulnerable students at risk.
“It is not only inequitable but discriminatory to both students as well as the teachers,” Laurie Jansen, a special education preschool teacher at WELC, wrote. How are we to decide which students to receive instruction in-person or virtual? Because a student has special needs or does not have special needs should not dictate in person or virtual learning or potential exposure to probing. This also is putting teachers and staff at risk as well. How do we decide which teachers or students get put at risk? “
Some parents, however, felt that the only way their children with special needs could continue to grow was through in-person education.
“She would get up with me or very early and take her shower, go through her whole routine,” Amanda O’Brien said regarding her special needs daughter. “All the while, I will tell her there's no school and it would be heartbreaking to watch her waiting for a bus that wasn't coming. Then when she finally gave up on the bus, her behaviors would start. This went on for weeks. And let me just say that once her behaviors would start, it was no way we were getting any schoolwork done.”
Wait for state budget raises “yellow light”
Although the school department will spend less under the mostly remote model compared to $15.7 million for hybrid learning, the department still needs an additional $3 million for distance learning.
Chief Budget Officer Anthony Ferrucci explained since the state is waiting for the U.S. Congress to approve a second stimulus package, and the state budget has not been decided yet, Warwick’s school budget has been cut by $305,000 per month, or $3 million annually.
“So cut to the chase, it’s this: Last August 2019, the City of Warwick received $3,431,000 in state aid for schools, which was our August payment,” Ferrucci said. “This year, we're scheduled to receive $3,125,000 for August. That is a $305,000 reduction in state aid to the schools. If that level of funding continues forward, we're projected to have a state aid reduction of $3 million [annually].”
Ferrucci also explained that the school department is still unable to access the $1.7 million in funding promised by the CARES Act.
“So my expectation is that the $1.7 million will be announced at some point in the near future, concurrent with the state aid cut. At that point, we will reconcile our budget to what's known. I will report back to you in early September if we hear where we're going, or October as long as this thing continues to unfold. I don't take it as a crisis today.”
With only three schools operating in-person (Vets, Drum Rock and the Career and Tech Center) for the beginning of the school year, Ferrucci hopes that the savings will offset additional costs that may come for in-person classes.
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