By Elizabeth F. McNamara
Many residents may not realize it, but the EG School District has long had someone serve as “consulting physician,” a position held by Howard Silversmith, a doctor with Ocean State Pediatrics. For the first 14 years in the role, “it was a very, very non-time-consuming job,” he said in an interview last week. “This year it has blossomed into quite a role.”
In recent weeks, Silversmith has been helping guide the district as it navigates how to reopen schools. He is a member, along with two additional doctors – both EG parents – of the EG Reopens steering committee.
The way he sees it, the spread of COVID-19 is dangerous but keeping children out of school comes with significant risk too.
“The problem is, when you look at the landscape of COVID, when you talk about kids, their social, emotional, academic, athletic risks are incredibly high” when it comes to distance learning.
Children may not be overly susceptible to COVID-19, but they have become the “side casualties” of this pandemic, Silversmith said. “If we reopen, we are setting ourselves up for more hospitalizations and more deaths. That’s the problem – who do we sacrifice?”
The district had to submit different reopening scenarios to the state Dept. of Education Friday: full in-person learning, full distance learning, and a hybrid of the two (read more about what was submitted HERE). Supt. Alexis Meyer presented what the district was leaning toward at a School Committee meeting last Tuesday that would have elementary students in stable groups attend school 5 days a week and middle and high school students divided into two groups by alphabetical order, with one group in school two days a week and the other group in school a different two days a week, with distance learning the other days of the week.
The American Academy of Pediatrics put out what Silversmith characterized as a “fairly aggressive” in-person stance a few weeks ago but in light of the recent surge of virus cases across the country, the organization has since walked that back a bit. Silversmith has based his advice to the district on his interpretation of AAP recommendations, but he said when it comes down to actual decisions, “I think a lot of this will be dictated by the [Rhode Island] Dept. of Health.
He supports the in-person model for younger children and a partial in-person model for older children but he thinks a closer adherence to the actual structure of a typical school day would be helpful for distance learning. So, if a high school student would normally be in geometry from 9 to 9:45 a.m., in distance learning that student should log in with the rest of the class at that time.
Silversmith said he thinks we could see a vaccine sometime in the early months of 2021 but acknowledged that losing what could amount to a year due to the pandemic was worrisome.
“For some will it be a tough hill to climb back up? Yes,” he said. Overall, children are resilient, but “there are certain populations that are more vulnerable.”
Upcoming community meetings about reopening:
- Tuesday, July 21, 7 to 9 p.m.: East Greenwich Public Schools Family Zoom Meeting. Asst. Supt. Mr. Podraza, Director of Facilities Bob Wilmarth, Director of Student Services Lisa Hughes, and Supt. Alexis Meyer will present the reopening plan and offer time to respond to questions.
- Tuesday, August 4. Dr. Howard Silversmith and our School Nurse Teachers will host a family Zoom meeting on health and safety issues.
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In the specific case of East Greenwich High School, starting the year with a new principal and a new assistant principal would be a challenge in normal circumstances. The COVID-19 re-opening adds to the challenge. With all the details that will need to be worked out, it appears quite likely that the system will not be in a good position to accommodate students with special needs (IEPs). The performance of the school system with such students has been marginal at best in the past. The prognosis for these students within the COVID-19 context is not promising. Hopefully the system will not enforce truancy sanctions on those families that opt to keep their special needs students home this fall.
How? Can’t parents of special needs students opt to homeschool even with services?