The East Greenwich School Committee voted unanimously Tuesday night to bring middle and high school students back to the classroom full-time as teachers get fully vaccinated, in-school transmission remains low and parents campaign for students’ return.
Beginning April 26, middle and high school students will return to the classroom full-time five days a week. Since October, these students have been learning through a hybrid model in which two groups of students alternated between fully remote and fully in-person days. Mondays served as an asynchronous learning day, but this was eliminated in March to allow for more time in the classroom.
Elementary school students, meanwhile, have been in-person full-time since October, although they have the option to take all classes online. The older students will also have this option through the end of the school year.
Superintendent Alexis Meyer said she laid out a plan for full reopening because she, the school committee and health care professionals across the country felt it was safe to bring students back to the classroom. The Rhode Island Department of Health and Rhode Island Department of Education sent the district an email earlier this month sharing updated guidelines for in-person classes, including allowing 3 feet of social distancing instead of 6 feet, allowing more students to return to the classroom. Meyer also added that COVID-19 transmission rates have already been low in schools.
Teachers and school staff have been eligible for vaccination in Rhode Island since mid-March 30, which made Meyer more secure in the proposal. And as the weather gets warmer this spring, students students will be able to take clc hold classes or eat lunch outside, which allows for better airflow to prevent airborne virus spread. Parents have also voiced concerns for months that hybrid classes have had a negative impact on their children’s learning and mental health, which the superintendent addressed.
“What’s most important for all of us at this point is we do have the data that says we have little to no spread inside of our schools,” Superintendent Alexis Meyer said. “And that’s because we have very regulated settings. But in order for this to work. It takes a whole community effort.”
According to Meyer, returning to in-person classes doesn’t necessarily mean a return to “normal.” Students and staff will still need to wear masks, air filtration units will be installed in each classroom to increase air exchange and students will be distanced at least 3 feet apart. Contract tracing, daily attestation submissions and enhanced cleaning protocols will continue even with a full in-person return.
The district’s consulting physician, Dr. Howard Silversmith, said the community may see an increase in cases, but he argued this would be due to factors other than students’ return to school.
“We do expect and anticipate a potential rising number of cases in the community based on variants of COVID, not based on more kids in school,” Silversmith said. “I can’t stress enough that my belief that the number of cases that is going to tick upward over the coming weeks, as we get more people vaccinated, as we fight these variants is not going to be based on the fact that kids are in school more often.”
Before voting on the matter, the committee allowed for public comment. Most of the comments came from parents in favor of in-person learning.
Jennifer Armstrong, chorus director at Cole Middle School, expressed concern that schools will return fully in-person immediately after April vacation. She worried that families would travel during break even if they’re not supposed to, potentially bringing new strains of the virus into the community. Silversmith responded by saying her fear is not unfounded, but that there will always be some risk. He also explained the date was chosen because by April 26 almost all teachers and staff should have been able to receive two doses of the vaccine.
“I do worry that yes, numbers will go up with variants, I do worry that numbers will go up with travel,” Silversmith said. “But again, I think at some point, we do need to say that we are going to live with an acceptable amount of COVID as long as it’s not taxing our healthcare system, as long as it’s not taxing our economy, as long as it’s not taxing our ability to function on a day-to-day basis.”