After more than a month of preparing for hybrid classes, the Warwick School Committee voted 4-1 Tuesday night for schools to move completely online this fall.
On Wednesday during her weekly press conference, Gov. Raimondo pushed back her planned reopening of schools from Aug. 31 to Sept. 14.
The Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) will make a recommendation for how schools should reopen due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, according to Warwick Schools Superintendent Phillip Thornton, schools are only required to follow RIDE’s guidance if it is marked as a directive instead of a recommendation.
The School Committee cited safety and cost as the two major factors behind the pivot. Citing schools in other parts of the country that have reopened in person and have seen outbreaks, School Committee Chairwoman Karen Bachus, Vice Chair Judith Cobden, Clerk Nathaniel Cornell and member Kyle Adams said that they could not guarantee school community’s safety by offering classes in-person. However, members supported in-person for special education students, citing a need for them to be in a physical classroom for their special needs.
The lone dissenter, David Testa, reasoned a vote could wait until the department learns more regarding funding and the status of the virus.
“The more we learn, we understand that children, teachers, students and families are going to be impacted by COVID if we return to school,” Bachus said. “In fact, 100,000 kids have been diagnosed with COVID in the past two weeks. And not everybody's tested, so that's a scary number. At this time, I would ask our members to protect teachers and support personnel and to begin the new school year using distance learning for all.”
The members also voiced concerns regarding the affordability of a hybrid model. Chief Budget Officer Anthony Ferrucci explained that moving to a hybrid or fully in-person model would cost an additional $15.7 million, which the school department cannot afford. Ferrucci said that Warwick has only received $1.2 million from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) and $1.7 million from the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF), both of which are part of the CARES passed in Congress earlier this year, for COVID-19 educational funding. Even with this funding, the district would face a $12.1 million deficit. Meanwhile, exclusively distance learning would cost about $3 million in additional funding.
Much of the additional funding would go towards staffing. Due to social distancing and sanitation guidelines, the school department would need to hire an additional 104 part-time lunch aides, 39 part-time building aides, 30 part-time bus monitors and 86 full-time custodians which would cost at least $2 million, according to Ferrucci. Yet only 12 applicants have applied for the 86 custodial positions, which Ferrucci said was a logistical problem in and of itself.
Facilities are also a major cost for in-person classes. Warwick Schools Facilities Maintenance and Operations Manager Kevin Oliver explained that medical professionals recommended that air in classrooms goes through four to six air cycles per hour in order to prevent the virus from staying in the air for too long. Warwick Veterans Memorial Middle School, Drum Rock Early Childhood Education Center and the Warwick Area Career and Technical Center are the only buildings that would meet this requirement due to their newer facilities and better air ventilation. All other schools would need to install box fans, according to Oliver, with Pilgrim High School needing about 104, and the district needing over 1,000 fans overall. The district would also have to invest in air filtration, particularly for rooms with no windows such those in the interior of Toll Gate High School.
Schools would also need to frequently sanitize surfaces and rearrange furniture for optimal social distancing.
“I feel like this is pretty much our only option because the safety of students is the highest priority, we need to guarantee that, and the lack of money we just cannot guarantee that right now,” Cornell said. “Like as Mr. Ferrucci just said, best case scenario we would be $12 million in the hole. However, we're still $12.million in the hole, and in two weeks that's not going to change. So this is our only option.”
Testa said he isn’t opposed to distance learning, he believes that it is too early for the school department to make a decision.
“What I would do is I would just advise us to have a special meeting a week and a half from now, two weeks from now, after we try to get a little more information [from RIDE], and then make that decision,” Testa said. “Because as Dr. Thornton said, everything changes by the minute. And I understand what parents have to plan for because last year I was a parent and I had to plan for this, for the closure of school too....I just want to go on record and say I don't disagree with this. I just don't know tonight is the night to make the decision.”
Lynn Dambruch, assistant superintendent and director of elementary education released the results of an Aug. 10 survey of 3,757 Warwick parents and guardians responding in which 41.8 percent said they would send their children back to school; 26.4 percent said they would keep their children home for distance learning and 31.7 percent said they are not sure what option they will choose.
The three top concerns raised by parents, according to the survey are: “I am not comfortable with my children wearing masks in school all day; there will not be enough staff to keep the school clean throughout the day to make it safe for students to return and it is not safe to be in school yet. I am afraid my child will bring COVID-19 home.
Comments from those favoring a return to the classroom include “My child learns better in school; distance learning should have more real-time instruction and children need human connections and opportunities to socialize.”
A survey of all teachers with a response rate of 70.6 percent or 630, found 81.2 percent said they would return to school in any model while the balance said they would return only under certain circumstances and would be seeking medical notes.
This potentially means as many as 168 teachers would not be attending school, Kim Ruggieri Human Resources Manager for the department said in an email exchange.
Other business discussed during the Zoom meeting included raising wages for staff such as custodians, bus monitors and lunch aides to $15 an hour if Warwick students return to the classroom later this year and cutting the Warwick Early Learning Center at John Brown Francis’ tuition in half if classes are offered virtually.