By TARA MONASTESSE and LAURA WEICK Tuesday night's virtual Warwick School Committee meeting, like much of daily life for Warwick residents so far this spring, was centered around how to navigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic as statewide reopening
Tuesday night’s virtual Warwick School Committee meeting, like much of daily life for Warwick residents so far this spring, was centered around how to navigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic as statewide reopening plans continue to develop. With the 2019-20 school year officially drawing to a close next week, the committee is looking to how to handle a potential return to the classroom after this summer; in the meantime, the staggering task of working out how to mend a $6.2 million budget deficit in the district’s budget weighs heavily on their minds.
An executive session, which lasted about an hour, preceded the portion of the livestream publicly streamed on the WPS Video channel; the agenda listed topics for this session as personnel matters and litigation/mediation/legal advice. The latter topics included discussion of the City of Warwick Budget, as well as the Adopted Superintendent Recommended Budget for FY2021.
“We know we’ve got a lot of issues in front of us,” said chief budget officer Anthony Ferrucci during the public session, noting that the City’s budget contributed $2 million to Warwick Schools after a request of $8 million.
Examples of how costs have been saved in wake of the pandemic were offered. Typically, the traditional graduation ceremonies at CCRI would cost approximately $15,000 to put together; this year’s social-distancing alternative, taking place within each high school itself, reduced the cost to about $3,000. However, costs saved on conducting certain processes within social distancing guidelines are balanced out by the expense of others; Ferrucci mentioned that money usually gained directly from student lunches is now being diverted to other food service businesses within the city.
As for free breakfasts and lunches, Ferrucci reported that the district has given 24,800 of these meals to students since distribution centers were set up at three locations within the district following the start of distance learning. Of these, 11,900 were given to parents unaccompanied by students; a discussion was had regarding the financial logistics of free food going to families who may not be eligible under the current USDA guidelines.
“Nobody should go hungry in a country as wealthy as the United States,” said Chairwoman Karen Bachus. She stated that free lunches for students should always be provided, as those who already have the means to provide them at home will not show up to take free lunches they do not need.
As summer is set to being, the committee also discussed the potential process of reopening physical classrooms in the fall.
“Given the current CDC guidelines and what we’re hearing, this is a strong position to get elementary back with some work on our end,” said Superintendent Philip Thornton. “I think there’s still some challenges for middle and high, given that those classes tend to rotate.”
Thornton went on to explain that the idea of having contained “pods” - smaller groups of students who remain in one place with one teacher for the entire school day - is much more suited to elementary classrooms than secondary ones.
“We’re meeting quite often, and we’re looking to make sense of the guidelines and see what’s practical for us for the fall,” he said. In-person classes
Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo announced on Wednesday that Rhode Island students will return to in-person classes this fall.
During a COVID-19 press briefing, Raimondo announced that she wants all K-12 schools to open on Aug. 31. Raimondo cited fewer new cases being confirmed each day, as well as the psychological need for children to learn in person, as reasons for pursuing reopening.
"There is no substitute for in-person learning,” Raimondo said. “Our students deserve and will do better if they can have in-person learning."
However, Raimondo said that schools will probably not return to the way they were before the pandemic. Some changes may include placing desks further apart, cleaning more often, staggering school start times, more busses with less people on them and wearing masks. She added that the state will invest $42 million from CARES Act funding to help districts adjust.
“It will look different and we just need to realize that now, we don’t know how it will look but let’s start thinking about what different will look like,” Raimondo said.
All districts will follow the same school year calendar, according to Raimondo, with the same vacation days and end date. Typically, each public school district creates its own school year calendar, but the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) consulted with two teachers’ unions to create the state calendar.
By June 19, RIDE and the Rhode Island Department of Health will release minimum health guidelines for schools to follow in the fall. With these guidelines as a foundation, school districts will have to submit their plans for opening while staying safe to the state by July 17. Different districts may have different needs depending on their case counts and other circumstances, but all will be required to report their plans to the state for different virus situations.
“Central Falls right now has a very high prevalence of this disease,” Raimondo said as an example. “I believe that will be very different by the end of the summer. We’re already seeing we’re making great progress.”
Rhode Island State Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green said that since the situation in August could change, schools need to prepare in case the virus makes a comeback.
“Flexibility is the name of the game,” Infante-Green said. “We’re putting all this out, but that is why we have a range of plans that could be put in place.”
Infante-Green added that snow days announced at district level as well as statewide professional development days will no longer be days off for students. Instead, these will become virtual learning days. She and Raimondo also urged any students who are feeling even slightly sick to stay home from school in case they have the virus.
Raimondo also announced a special airing on RI PBS titled “Your Year 2020” for this year’s high school graduates to watch. Airing June 15 at 7 p.m., the special will feature actress and Central Falls native Viola Davis as a keynote speaker, as well as shout outs from the New England Patriots football team. Afterwards there will be a virtual concert featuring Grammy-nominated musicians and celebrity cameos titled “United for Grads.”
Before Raimondo’s announcement, Warwick Superintendent Phillip Thornton said that students, faculty and staff will probably see changes. In addition to Raimondo’s proposals, students may need to eat lunch in their classrooms instead of cafeterias so if a classmate is infected with COVID-19, they will have only been exposed to their classmates instead of multiple classes in the cafeteria, for example.
Another possibility Warwick School Committee Chairperson Karen Bachus suggested was staggering days when students come to school. Students could be split into groups, with one group going to school in-person while the other learns remotely one day, before the groups swap places the next day. But Bachus said that nothing is confirmed yet.
“My concerns are that as it stands today, secondary schools don’t happen,” said David Testa. “And that’s going to be a gigantic problem with a tremendous ripple effect. My fear is also that distant learning is going to come back for the secondary levels heavily. And, as much as I liked it in an emergency, it is a less than ideal form of teaching for a whole bunch of teachers and students.” While noting that the school committee is still waiting for statewide protocols for reopening in autumn from the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE),
Lynn Dambruch, director of elementary education, announced that Monday, June 15th, will mark the first meeting of a special committee dedicated to planning the reopening of Warwick schools this coming fall. Recently approved by the Superintendent, the committee will work to develop a plan of action for multiple potential scenarios; while the ultimate verdict from the Rhode Island Department of Education is still yet to be heard, Dambruch said that the new committee hopes to develop possible routes for the district in the meantime.
Mental health care
Jennifer Connolly, director of special services, announced a contract award with Effective School Solutions, a company that works with school districts to provide mental health care and additional family counseling to youth in grades K-12. As part of this contract, two social workers with a capacity of 20 students each will be introduced to Winman Middle School as a resource for students; the introduction of this service was noted to be especially vital in the wake of a pandemic that has disrupted the daily lives of students and families nationwide, let alone just in Warwick. Warwick will also be one of the first districts to pilot this particular program, with the contract annually renewed.
“It’s not just about an identified patient and what they’re doing,” said Bachus. “It’s very productive... We have kids who need this, and it’ll be very positive.”
A contract for reusable face masks from a local vendor was also discussed by Ferrucci, which would place them at a buying price of $0.50 each; this would be an affordable option for both employees, as well as students who do not have their own masks. While the question of whether or not students will ultimately be in class this fall remains uncertain, the opportunity to secure a sustainable option for protection is considered a priority moving forward.
A full archive of this meeting, hosted on June 9th, can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x-LbWVkZJVE&feature=youtu.be.