In past two weeks, there have been 250+ cases of COVID among students and staff
Just as the new COVID-19 variant omicron has caused cases to balloon across the state, the School Committee Tuesday night heard of the same stark upward trend for the school district, with 97 positives among students and staff the week of Dec. 27-Jan. 3 and 140 last week (Jan. 3-9) Supt. Alexis Meyer said. Two days into this week, the district had 23 cases.
The conversation got real, however, when Meyer talked about staff absences (including those for reasons other than COVID). Since Jan. 3, there were more than 50 staff members out every day but Tuesday, where the number dropped to the mid-40 range (Friday was not counted in that total since it became an at-home learning day because of a snow storm). On each of those days, less than half the absences were covered by substitutes. How are the other absences filled? With teachers who have gaps in their schedules and with school administrators (Meyer herself has been stepping in to teach).
“We are managing the best we can. We are doing it together,” Meyer said. “It’s not been easy. It’s not been easy for two years. We’ve been living in this reality for almost two years now.”
She expressed hope that they’d seen the worst of the surge for the school district – with the return from the holiday break – and she said the district had gotten a lot of new substitutes. Earlier in the meeting, the School Committee approved significant raises for substitute teachers and school nurses. For non-teacher certified substitutes, the pay was increased from $85/day to $125/day. For certified teachers, it went from $100 to $150/day and for long-term subs, from $140 to $200/day. Pay for school nurses rose from $200 to $225/day.
Committeewoman Alyson Powell asked distance learning. “While we’re surging, have we given any thought to distance learning,” she asked, noting the district’s wide array of COVID prevention strategies are less effective against the omicron variant. “What we knew worked [before] doesn’t work now. It doesn’t offer the same level of protection anymore.”
There had been an executive order in place empowering school districts to make decisions about distance and in-person learning, said Committee Chair Anne Musella. “That executive order is now gone. From what I understand, RIDE has very limited authority to empower a superintendent to declare any amount of distance learning.”
Meyer concurred, noting the issue is over the state requirement that students receive 180 days of instruction and right now distance learning does not count toward that 180 days. RIDE Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green has been allowing individual schools to move to distance learning on a very limited case-by-case basis. Meyer said she is in conversations with the school principals each day weighing the staffing issues and how
“We have remained committed to in-person learning,” she said. “I’m looking at those absences at 11 o’clock at night and again at 4 in the morning, trying to making a decision. At this point we’ve been able to manage it. It hasn’t been easy.”
[Editor’s note: During a meeting that took place at the same time Tuesday, the state Council on Elementary & Secondary Education voted to give Commissioner Infante-Green the power to grant virtual learning days count as school days, as reported by WPRI HERE.]
Chair Musella noted how important it was that high school students were able to be together last week after the tragic death of Olivia Passaretti. “They would not have been in community” if the district had moved to distance learning after New Year’s.
“Being together as a community, it will leave an indelible mark on how the community supported them,” she said.
Committeeman Gene Quinn expressed frustration with the state’s inaction.
“The state has been overtaken by events. We’re just hoping to muddle through unfortunately. If we truly don’t have options right now … that’s appalling,” he said. “That’s not a reflection on the heroic actions by staff in the district. Those staff are at risk right now and it’s just appalling.”
During public comment, Cole chorus teacher Jen Armstrong said she thought the strategies last year were more protective.
“The elephant in the room: I’m afraid to go back. The kids are not wearing KN95 masks. I don’t feel like I can 100 percent serve the kids if I don’t feel 100 percent safe,” she said, noting last year’s 6-foot social distancing and how lunches were handled differently.
“The health and safety is up to the School Committee,” she said. “There’s nothing I want to do than to go back and teach the students. Somebody had to address what’s going on now.”
“Our clear understanding is absent another executive order, we do not have the authority to grant distance learning,” said Musella. Our clear understanding is we don’t have the authority at this time.”
Find Supt. Meyer’s presentation to the School Committee here: Report of the Superintendent 1/11/2021.