School Committee continues to discuss – and question – school reopening plans
At the School Committee’s virtual meeting Tuesday night, Supt. Alexis Meyer laid out reopening plans and COVID-related expenses. As has become the norm, many questions remain. So many, in fact, the School Committee will meet virtually again Friday at 8 a.m. to discuss plans further.
But on Tuesday, Supt. Meyer covered a lot of ground (find her “Re-Opening School” presentation HERE).
Most pressing for parents and teachers: Is in-person school safe? There was a lot of discussion about social distancing. In-person classes with 24 students are relying on a 3-foot socal distance model. But 6 feet is the well-established mantra. How can 3 feet be OK?
The answer, said Meyer, is that it can be OK for younger students if they are wearing face masks.
“There’s language that speaks to 6 feet. There’s also language that speaks to 3 feet with masks on. The distinction is important,” she said.
Meyer referred to the Back to School Rhode Island FAQ:
“The 6-foot guidance is to reduce spread between individuals. When planning, if students/adults are unable to maintain a 6-foot distance apart then additional mitigation efforts should be used (i.e. face covering, cleaning spaces/supplies, not facing one another) and the spacing should be as close to 6 feet as possible.”
She also cited recent guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics:
“Evidence suggests that spacing as close as 3 feet may approach the benefits of 6 feet of space, particularly if students are wearing face coverings and asymptomatic. Given what is known about transmission dynamics, adults and adult staff within schools should attempt to maintain a distance of 6 feet from other persons as much as possible, particularly around other adult staff.”
Frenchtown Elementary School teacher and teacher union head Donna McPhee expressed concern about the safety of students, faculty and staff when reopening the schools in-person. Her comments echo concerns set forth by eight Rhode Island superintendents who wrote to Gov. Gina Raimondo Tuesday saying their districts aren’t prepared to open safely in-person. Instead, they plan to move to remote learning when school begins Sept. 14.
“Without doing baseline testing of all students and teachers and staff, I’m not sure we will have information to know how we are actually reopening and not putting all at risk to exposure,” McPhee said. “I personally don’t understand the 3-feet social distancing when in all other aspects of life right now, 6 feet is the expected norm. We wish we could go back to school but we want to keep every person safe.”
EG resident April Bobenchik, a microbiologist and director of Lifespan Laboratories who has overseen all COVID testing there since February, said the guidance has changed because the data has changed.
“What we thought was aerosolization is now a droplet,” Bobenchik said. “That’s where the difference comes between 3 foot [distance] and 6 foot [distance]. A droplet falls within 3 feet. Aerosolization goes beyond 6 feet. So, they were safe early on to say 6 feet. We have more and more data now to say it’s droplet precautions, therefore you need to be masked within the 6-feet range. If you do not have your mask on, you’re not safe.”
She also referenced a New York Times article published Aug. 21 that found there were only four incidents of secondary transmission – passing the virus from one child to another – in the two months since 666 Rhode Island child care centers have been open.
“Remember, in not a single daycare center are the children masked, where our children are well within 6 feet,” she said.
And, she added, East Greenwich hasn’t been over a 2 percent positive rate since May 17. She emphasized that all of this information and guidance comes from scientists and is data-based.
“I feel very safe that with the plans we have in place tonight, we can be comfortable that we are safe as we can be,” she said.
The flip side of this discussion – is distance learning safe in mental-health terms? – was not addressed at length Tuesday but has been discussed previously, in particular at the forum with district health care personnel HERE.
EG, like every other school district around the state as required by RIDE, has developed plans for full in-person, partial in-person, limited in-person, and full distance learning.
Full or partial models involve 100 percent in-person for pre-K through 5th grade. The limited model for pre-K through 5th grade involves 50 percent in-person with stable groups of 15. For grades 6 through 12, only 25 percent of students can be in-person at one time. The complete distance learning model involves no in-person instruction for all grades.
For the full/partial or limited models, there are opportunities for families who want their students to learn under a distance learning model.
Vulnerable groups (some students with IEPs and others) under all these models will also meet in-person.
As of now, a total of 440 students are opting for distance learning, although survey responses account for only 2,216 of the district’s 2,600 students. School principals are going through their student lists and cross-referencing who they haven’t seen a response from. Meyer encouraged every family to fill out the distance-learning form.
How will this distance learning work? For elementary schools, there are enough students opting for distance learning in some grades that the district is able to have full-size distance classrooms. Other grades will disperse distance learners among in-person classrooms. For the middle and high schools, students are dispersed among in-person classrooms.
Meyer acknowledged there will be a challenge for teachers moving in and out of distance learning. The ideal would be for numbers to align so there could be full distance-learning classrooms.
Meyer also laid out some logistics Tuesday night. For the district’s four elementary schools, principals will hold parent forums at every grade level for principals to go over procedures and processes for reopening and to share the daily experience for each grade. Placement letters will be sent out Sept. 3. Virtual and potential in-person orientations are in the works.
Meyer said elementary schools are estimated to have around 24 students per room. Desks have replaced tables to maximize separation. Excess furniture has been removed to maximize each bit of square footage.
For Cole Middle School, scheduling for students and staff is being completed. Classrooms continue to be modified and student desks are being reorganized. Under a 50 percent in-person model, there are up to 15 students in a class, allowing for 6 feet of distance.
In each of the buildings, nurse areas are being modified to meet current needs. Every school building will have the traditional nurse’s room that will serve to support students who would regularly see the nurse for a cut or other non-virus type ailments. A second room has been established for any student who isn’t feeling well. It will be used as an assessment room where the school nurse can decide whether or not a student is COVID-19 symptomatic. A third space is also being created that will be an isolation room.
Classroom modifications and desk reorganization are also happening at the high school, including moving excess furniture and materials to storage containers. Like at Cole, classes at the high school will have up to 15 students. Student and teacher schedules are now live and protocols are being established for in-person learning.
Meyer said everyone will need to follow communications from the school nurses, paying attention to email updates. Faculty and staff need to attend professional development sessions, whether in-person or virtual, on COVID-19 precautions and procedures prior to school opening. She said students, faculty, and staff who travel to a place with a positive rate over 5 percent need to quarantine for 14 days before returning to in-person school.
As happens every year, but with added urgency this year, parents will need to submit emergency contact information, including local contacts in addition to a parent or guardian, in case of a prompt dismissal and for contact tracing.
“We must have accurate, updated information so that we are able to contact parents and should there be a need for contact tracing, or even coming to pick a student up from school,” Meyer said.
Daily self attestations will be required by families, faculty and staff. What that looks like is still under review.
Meyer reminded parents and guardians to fill out the Transportation Request Form that was circulated in early August about whether their child will need bus transportation, noting the district had not heard from everyone yet.
As for operations districtwide, there are revised parking lot traffic markings for new traffic flow, and instructions to parents regarding revised pick up and drop off routines will be distributed shortly. The school summer cleaning is nearing completion.
For food services through Aramark, the current plan is that elementary students will eat meals in their classrooms. At Cole, there will be grab-and-go boxed lunches served in the cafeteria. At the high school, there will be grab-and-go meals in the cafeteria and upper gym.
The district is still waiting for 1,000 Chromebooks, Meyer said. Unfortunately, because of supply chain challenges, they are not anticipated to arrive until mid to late September. Wearable wireless speakers and microphones have been being tested and the plan is to order a set for every teacher, with delivery prior to the start of school.
On Tuesday, Sept. 1, the School Committee will meet to discuss the reopening scenario, following Raimondo’s final decision the day before. Unless distance learning is the recommendation, there will be bus dry runs Sept. 2-4, with preliminary bus routes posted Sept. 7. The district will look for feedback Sept. 7-10, with revised routes posted Sept. 11.
School Committee members also sought clarification over who decides what school in East Greenwich will look like come Sept. 14? Gov. Raimondo will announce what each district can do on Monday. School Committee lawyer Matt Oliverio said the decision would sit with the district.
“In my recent discussions with the counsel for RIDE, he’s been consistent in telling me that, at least it’s his position – I don’t know if it’s shared with the Commissioner [Angélica Infante-Green] – is that the governor and the commissioner are providing guidelines and metrics by which it is deemed safe to reopen schools, but the decision to reopen rests with the LEA [Local Education Agency],” he said.
School Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Mark said she believed the final decision would be made locally.
“My hope is that whatever comes out of the governor’s office ends up being a recommendation that she is able to respect the authority that local school committees have,” she said. “I hope that the governor in her announcement recognizes that and that it doesn’t turn into a legal battle around the state.”
While the pressing questions about safety and procedures are top of mind for many in the district, there is another nagging question: How much will this all cost?
Meyer was able to lay out what she called “startup” costs related to in-person learning Tuesday, including what two months of extra cleaning would cost ($83,000 for extra custodians and supervisors), a two-month supply of PPE and related equipment ($158,000), additional transportation costs ($140,000), extra desks – replacing tables in some classrooms – ($51,000), and curriculum expenses for distance learning ($30,000).
Meyer said the district had $829,000 to help pay for COVID-19 related costs, nearly $500,000 coming out of capital spending reserve accounts, a $68,500 savings in athletics and field trips, $100,000 in transportation savings by eliminating private school busing, and $110,000 in personnel (retirements), and $60,000 from the federal CARES Act.
But School Committeeman Jeff Dronzek said he suspected the state would take back the CARES Act money to help offset their own bleak budget picture.
“When they revise the state budget and there’s a deficit, they’re gonna plug the hole the way they did in fiscal year 2020,” he said. “That’s the one piece of our positives that may end up coming out.”
School Committee member Anne Musella expressed concern over the lack of long-term planning and details of additional costs, pointing out the two-month sections within the start-up costs.
“Why only two months worth of some costs?” she said. “Are we just expecting to shut down after two months? We do need to have a fuller discussion.”
Meyer said it was difficult to plan beyond two months because of state budget uncertainties.
“We can only operate in smaller spans of time with what we know and understand at this moment,” she said. “We don’t have a state budget because they don’t know either. All I can provide for you is what’s here and now, and we make adjustments with our current budget. I don’t think I can give you more than that. What’s before you is what I know we have spent.”
She vowed to provide regular expense updates.
“It’s the public’s money and I think we have to be as clear as we possibly can be about this,” Musella responded.
The School Committee will meet again, Friday, Aug. 28, at 8 a.m. to further discuss reopening plans. Find the agenda and the link to the virtual meeting here: School Committee meeting 8:28:20.
Also, you can watch the entire Tuesday School Committee meeting HERE (FYI: We forgot to turn off the livestream so it appears to be an eight-hour meeting. It wasn’t! It lasted a little over three hours.)
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