In light of calls from parents for a return to full in-person classes for middle and high school students, East Greenwich school department officials said this week the district is waiting for state guidance before ending hybrid learning.
But, on Thursday Supt. Alexis Meyer added, “I think it’s fair to say, should guidelines change, that contemplating more in-person opportunities for kids is something that’s very reasonable to consider.”
While elementary school students have been going to school in-person five days a week since October, middle and high school students have been split into two groups alternating between in-person and online school days between Tuesday and Friday, while Monday was an asynchronous workday for all students. Asynchronous Mondays are set to end on March 22 to give students more time in the classroom.
At Tuesday’s School Committee meeting, Howard Silversmith, the school district’s consulting pediatrician, said the district approached a Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) physician last week to ask if the school district could present a plan for a full return to in-person classes once teachers were fully vaccinated. This comes after increasing pressure from some parents as well as a brightening COVID-19 picture overall. Silversmith said officials wanted to address social and emotional suffering by students.
“The state made it very clear they would like some uniformity in how the state reopens to the potential for five-day-a-week school for the high school and middle schoolers, which by and large is not happening in most districts,” Silversmith said.
A RIDOH spokesperson said Thursday it was only a suggestion “that the school district touch base with other school districts/superintendents and with RIDE so that no one was acting independently and potentially proposing changes to established guidance.”
Current RIDOH school reopening guidelines require 6 feet social distancing if stable pods of students are not possible, although East Greenwich Superintendent Alexis Meyer said RIDOH is evaluating a change to state guidance to allow for 3 feet distance between students and the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is anticipated to rule shortly on loosening the distance guidelines. She stood by following state guidelines.
“Yes, we have state agencies that have the authority over this. They are the people who establish the guidelines,” she said in an interview Thursday.
Meyer acknowledged some school districts have been able to bring students back to school five days a week by releasing middle and high school students before lunch and/or offering fewer classes of longer duration in order to limit the mixing of student pods. But, she said, it depends on the available space. Many Rhode Island school districts are loosing enrollment; East Greenwich is growing. Every school in the district is at or over capacity, according to national standards.
Silversmith said that transportation and eating without masks would remain challenges. Bus capacity is currently limited to 30 percent capacity according to Meyer.
School Committee Chairwoman Anne Musella said even if schools completely reopen, the district plans to offer a remote option through at least 2021 for students uncomfortable going back to the classroom.
Silversmith and Meyer made it clear that the district is just as eager as parents to return to the classroom, and that they hear parent and student voices on the matter.
“I don’t want you to think that it’s falling on deaf ears and we are hiding behind state guidelines,” Silversmith said. “We tried to move those state guidelines, we are trying to move those markers, we will continue to do so. If we are not met with relaxed guidelines in the near future, we will readdress and we will reassess where we’re at, but I just need you to know that none of it is lost on me, none of it is lost on the superintendent, none of it is lost on your teachers.”
East Greenwich schools have not been hit as hard by COVID-19 as some other Rhode Island communities, especially this month. Meyer said since March 1, the district has seen three positive cases at the high school, five at Cole Middle School and none at any of the elementary schools. The district tested 350 asymptomatic staff members and 67 asymptomatic students, all of which came back negative. According to Meyer, about 250 school department staff members, including teachers, cafeteria staff, bus drivers and coaches, took part in a vaccination clinic earlier this month.
During public comment, parent Peter Carney said he thought there was a clear finish line for the pandemic as teachers become fully vaccinated, and that other districts of a similar size to East Greenwich have made more of a commitment to returning in-person soon.
“It certainly remains very concerning that the local decision-making that we seek is being ceded to state or even federal agencies, awaiting further guidance,” Carney said.
In response, Silversmith said that he did not want families to think the district was using state guidelines as an excuse. Regarding Carney’s concerns about academics, Silversmith argued that students were still finding unique ways to learn.
“I don’t know about standardized test scores, I don’t know about the report cards, but I can tell you that my patients are doing awesome,” Silversmith said. “Yes, a lot of them have some mental health problems, a lot of them are struggling, but to be honest with you, that doesn’t mean they’re not stronger for this. That doesn’t mean that this is not a learning experience, in and of itself.”
Other parents spoke about how their children were struggling academically and emotionally during the pandemic. Meredith Worthy said she was worried that her high school-age child was struggling and wouldn’t be able to catch up. She suggested that the school department implement some sort of summer program to help students who fall behind. Lisa Nula, a member of the parent group East Greenwich Parents for In-Person Learning, said the lack of full-time in-person learning had damaged her children’s executive functioning skills and heightened their anxiety.
Melissa Pezza, a dentist and mom, said that while schools should not eliminate all mitigation procedures, schools should reopen especially since most other sectors already have.
“If unvaccinated dentists can be face-to-face with other people unvaccinated, unmasked and have zero evidence to transmission, there is no reason that schools can’t do the same,” Pezza said. “Unfortunately, the field of education is way behind the need to catch up with the rest of the world. Every other profession, trade or sector in the economy figured it out except education, I really don’t understand, but I can simply say that if I feel safe doing my job every day, then I know that students and teachers are safe in the classroom.”
Not all public comments were in favor of an immediate return to full in-person classes. East Greenwich High School senior Miguel Figueroa spoke about how he and his classmates opposed the removal of asynchronous Mondays, and noted that the School Committee’s frequent references to going “back to normal” were concerning. Figueroa argued that “normal” did not work for many students, including disabled students and students with mental health issues.
Jim Mire, a science teacher at East Greenwich High School, said that if schools returned to 100 percent capacity, there would be significantly increased exposure to asymptomatic students, which would risk community health.
“I’m confident that we’ll be able to return to that rich rigorous curriculum when each and every student is back in but it isn’t likely this school year,” Mire said. “Simply put, your villain is a hybrid teaching approach, a necessary evil that was selected as a means of establishing and maintaining a safe return to school last fall.”
Also Tuesday, the School Committee heard from Supt. Meyer about the racist comments against a Black man on Zoom who held a virtual Q&A session about his one-man play. Condemning the racism, Meyer said the East Greenwich police department, the schools’ IT department and the schools’ internet service provider are investigating the matter.
“Friday’s incident reminds us why it’s so important to continue supporting necessary programs that help our school community have challenging conversations around topics like racism and speaking out against hate,” Meyer said. “I am proud of our school community, especially our faculty, staff and students, for quickly responding on Friday.”