By JOHN HOWELL School administrators and teacher union officials from Warwick and eight other school districts represented by the American Federation of Teachers have been meeting almost daily to come up with a plan to reopen schools, Warwick
School administrators and teacher union officials from Warwick and eight other school districts represented by the American Federation of Teachers have been meeting almost daily to come up with a plan to reopen schools, Warwick Superintendent Philip Thornton told the Warwick Rotary Club on Thursday.
The objective is to have a common plan for all nine districts – Warwick, Cranston, West Warwick, Pawtucket, North Providence, Woonsocket, Lincoln, Johnston and Coventry – by the July 17 deadline set by the state. But drafting a plan that mitigates the spread of COVID-19, is safe, best serves the student, can be practically implemented and doesn’t break the bank is proving elusive.
“I would tell you the guidelines of the CDC, the guidelines of [Department of Health] and the state don't always intersect with what we believe can be achievable,” Thornton said.
As Warwick students have Chromebooks and the district had a plan for virtual classes on snow days, it was better prepared than most districts when schools across the state closed in March. But extended virtual classes have changed things in a way never imagined when dealing with a couple of snow days.
“This whole idea of virtual [learning] has kind of redefined what school is. We all went to school – you would seek time to go to school, you’d sit down and do your time, you learn and move on. Now, all of a sudden, we had this virtual experience last spring. And now we’re thinking about how has that really fundamentally changed us forever going forward,” he said.
Warwick also has the bandwidth for virtual classes whereas other districts don’t, which becomes problematic when looking to develop a plan appropriate for multiple districts.
“We’re positioned well to go full virtual … Some districts will crash their network and they can’t do it,” he said.
That makes virtual learning part of a plan for Warwick, but it’s hardly an overall plan. In-person school is what the governor wants, but making that happen while abiding by distancing and keeping small groups poses challenges. Thornton said when distancing is applied to busing, it isn’t “grounded in reality.”
Buses are now carrying 50 to 70 students, which would drop to 28 to meet the regulations. In order to comply, the district would need an additional 50 buses which, even if First Student were capable of providing, would cost schools an additional $4 million – assuming First Student could come up with sufficient drivers and the schools with bus monitors.
At a special meeting June 24, the School Committee voted to remove busing from its budget, other than the busing of special needs students, and to examine alternatives.
Thornton outlined some of the alternatives being looked at, including extension of walking distances, bus lines other than First Student such as Peter Pan and RIPTA, issuance of vouchers for RIPTA and paying parents mileage to transport their children.
Busing is but one of the challenges for the resumption of in-person school across the state on Aug. 31, as set by the governor.
“You probably can’t put every student back in the building, because you’re going to be so close,” he said.
Among the proposals being looked at is a partial reopening in which students would be divided into alphabetical groups. For example, students A through F would come in on Monday while the rest of them used Chromebooks from home. The Monday group would stay at home on Tuesday while the next group went into school. Staggered openings and using different doors of a school are options also being looked at.
Using Cedar Hill School with five doors as an example, Thornton said there could be a staggered opening by grade. That seems feasible until faced with regulations.
“We have to give everyone 330 instructional minutes in a child’s educational experience. We believe through staggered openings, through longer passing time, through a longer lunch, we probably won’t achieve 330, and to us, that’s OK,” he said, estimating the total to be between 310 and 315 minutes, yet the state is sticking to 330 minutes.
“Once again, we’d say that's not grounded in reality,” he said
High schools pose a different set of problems from elementary schools, where students stay in the same classroom and teachers rotate depending on the subject being taught. In high school, the range of courses is far greater and students walk to the room or activity, such as lunch, gym, chorus, shop and a special presentation in the auditorium, for example.
“The bell rings and you bump into them … you suddenly are packed together,” Thornton said, describing what happens in school corridors. Eliminating the use of lockers, lunches in classrooms and using the cafeteria for instruction where students can be spread out are being looked at.
Thornton couldn’t guarantee a sports program, suggesting tennis and golf are possibilities, but wrestling and football are problematic.
“There’s still no guidance from the state on sports,” he said.
“So there are a lot of interesting things at play here. We don’t think any plan we submit will be fully thought out on July 17. There are too many variables in play. We don’t know to what degree the COVID virus will be [prevalent],” he said.
The one certainty is a calendar.
“So the end of August, we all go back. So we know that that’s going to happen,” he said.