Cole, EGHS to Expand In-Person Learning to Mondays

by | Feb 28, 2021

This happens just as some parents start a petition seeking a roadmap to 5-day a week in-person school

Supt. Alexis Meyer announced Saturday that the so-called “asynchronous Mondays” for students at Cole Middle School and EGHS would end March 22, and instead Mondays will become an alternating in-person day, giving students a total of five in-person days every two weeks. 

“This is an important step for our students, our schools, and our community, and an important step toward our goal of getting all students back in their physical classrooms full-time. Though our best efforts to engage and instruct students through distance learning have proven meaningful, it is clear that in-person learning best supports students’ emotional development and educational success,” Meyer wrote in her weekly “Field Memo.” 

Since the beginning of the school year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, middle and high school students have been in person two days a week and at home doing distance learning two days a week, with Mondays for teacher prep time and student independent learning. According to the state Department of Education (RIDE), that constitutes “full in-person.” 

The idea was to lower the number of students in the buildings on a day-to-day basis to allow for increased social distancing. About 20 percent of middle and high school students opted for “full” distance learning, which leaves 80 percent who are in person – or around 40 percent of students on a given day. 

Students in kindergarten through fifth grade have been in class five days a week since October, both because of lower COVID-19 transmission rates for younger children and because the district has been able to keep K-5 students in stable pods – there’s no interactions between different classes. That doesn’t work for middle and high schoolers, who switch classes.

A group of parents calling themselves “EG Parents for In-Person Learning” is asking school officials to lay out a roadmap for returning to full, five-day-a-week, in-person school, out of concern for their children’s education and emotional well-being.

The group has circulated a petition on social media calling on the School Committee to identify “objective metrics” for the return of the traditional five-day-a-week in-person model. As of Feb. 27, it had garnered more than 400 signatures.

The first of their requests was elimination of the asynchronous Mondays. Supt. Meyer said the decision about the asynchronous Mondays had been in the works for a while. “The plan was already part of our internal discussions and intended for implementation at this time,” she said.

“We are thrilled with this announcement and more motivated than ever to work together on, and see a plan for, the return of full-time, in-person instruction for our MS and HS students,” the group said via email. 

The parent petition also asks the School Committee to cite “objective metrics” that will need to be met in order to resume all extracurricular activities and five-day-a-week instruction. You can find the group’s website HERE. You can find answers to a list of questions submitted by EG News HERE. (Editor’s Note: this second link was added 3/4/21.)

Meyer said she understood parents’ frustrations. 

“I care deeply for every child in this community and their ability to thrive,” she said. “I hear what folks are saying. I hear them. And we are working every single day planning to increase in-person learning for kids. But there are no black-and-white answers right now.”

She added, “Things are moving in the right direction. We are getting closer to that point where we see our lives getting back to the more familiar. I have every hope that beyond this year, life will return to normal. But I can’t say that’s a guarantee.” 

Rhode Island students returned to in-person learning well before many other states. Nearly half of all school children nationally have not returned to the classroom since they left last March. But the EG parent group said that fact isn’t their focus. Rather, they said via email: “… the quality of education in this school year has not met the standard for academics and student social and emotional wellbeing. That reality is coming at the expense of our children. Therefore, advocating for our kids has become the primary purpose regardless of the challenges facing the district and community.”

“It’s not that we have been without a plan,” said School Committee Chair Anne Musella. “The district’s plan has always been to get as many students in as soon as practicable.” 

The district’s initial plan that came out after numerous meetings last summer with the 75 people involved in the reopening schools effort can be found HERE

The Centers of Disease Control (CDC) states that the most important consideration regarding safely reopening schools is the rate of virus transmission in a community. The CDC tracks data by county and for Kent County the rate of transmission per 100,000 was 184 as of Friday, Feb. 26. The CDC says anything over 100 per 100,000 is “high transmission.” The test positivity rate is lower, 2.8 percent as of Feb. 26, but the CDC says to follow the higher number first. (You can find the CDC guidelines for K-12 schools HERE.)

The number of new COVID-19 cases has been dropping in East Greenwich but it remains higher than it was last fall when schools first reopened after the abrupt closure one year ago. 

“If we were strictly following CDC guidelines, my understanding is middle and high schools would be full distance learning, and elementary would be hybrid” right now, Musella said.

“It’s absolutely time to distill the metrics,” she said. “What we are not in a position to do right now is to set a specific timeline. That depends on a number of variables … even assuming a large percentage of teachers get the vaccine and a large percentage of students 16 and older are vaccinated, what mitigation strategies would we still have to employ.” 

Megan Ranney has a 3th grader and an 6th grader in EG schools. She practices emergency medicine at Rhode Island Hospital and has become a national spokeswoman for relying on science to guide policy during the COVID-19 pandemic. She has also been one of the informal medical professionals advising the school district this past year. 

“Our school system has tried to walk the middle ground of keeping kids mentally well and keeping kids and staff physically well in an absolutely admirable way,” she said Sunday. “Where we are is horrible. It’s horrible for kids, for parents and for staff. I understand as a parent why [some parents] want schools reopened. When restaurants and gyms are open it’s hard to see why schools aren’t open full time. But schools are held to a higher standard than restaurants. Our school system goes beyond the CDC guidelines by offering in-person school.”

East Greenwich is one of only two or three communities in the state where school populations are growing, which is an additional challenge in bringing all kids back to full in-person. It is not possible to maintain COVID-safe distances in every classroom at Cole and the high school and have every student back. When asked if the district could somehow acquire more classroom space – for instance by putting up tents or leasing space in town – Supt. Meyer said staffing additional classrooms and meeting state regulations would be difficult. As it is, the district has around 25 substitute teachers lined up to handle district needs on a day-to-day basis, not counting long-term substitutes. It’s not always enough, with building administrators and other staff needing to cover classes on high-teacher-absence days.

EGHS English teacher Marc Brocato said teaching kids in class and at home at the same time has been really hard. 

“I get that parents are itching for five days a week, but even if you have a class of 20 in-person kids and only 4 distance learning ones, you have not solved the problem of teachers needing to divide their attention. Parents have the right to want their kids in the building but it’s no more a right than the parents who want their kids to be fully and effectively taught at home,” he said. “Again, until you completely eliminate the distance learning situation, in-person learners cannot possibly receive what would be considered a ‘normal’ learning situation. Nobody asked for a pandemic and there isn’t a single teacher in the high school who would not give a right hand to have every kid in the building five days per week safely.”

 He did note he worried about the mental health of teachers with the elimination of the asynchronous Mondays. 

“While I would not consider it a ‘free day’ by any means for teachers, it did provide us with a moment to catch our breaths and prepare for the daunting tasks for the week in a ‘new normal.’”

Musella said she recognized the pandemic had given way to some competing needs between teachers and students. But, she added, “putting our students first and supporting our teachers are not mutually exclusive.” 

As she noted at the Feb. 23 School Committee meeting, this was an important discussion and it would continue.

“We are a year into a once-in-a-century global pandemic and that’s our reality,” said Musella. “I am hoping we can have an intellectually honest and productive community discussion that will continue as we approach whatever normal will look like.”

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