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Uncertainty lingers as school reopening delayed

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Cranston’s schools, like those across Rhode Island, will wait longer than planned for a resumption of classes – and to learn whether learning will take place virtually, in person, or somewhere in between.

Gov. Gina Raimondo last week announced the start of the school year has been delayed two weeks, from Aug. 31 to Sept. 14. A decision on how districts will open – which had been expected this week – will also be pushed back to the week of Aug. 31.

During Monday’s meeting of the School Committee, Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse said she understands the desire of state leaders to have the most current possible COVID-19 data before making a determination on which reopening scenarios will be implemented. Nonetheless, she said, the situation means there will be a “very short window of time” for local educators to adjust.

“That continues to be a huge concern for me, because that limits the amount of time we have to prepare for whatever scenario is put in front of us,” she said.

Cranston was among the districts that had initially submitted school reopening plans without a full in-person return option, instead proposing a “hybrid” model in which students would split their time between home and the classroom. Nota-Masse and others said that approach was taken because social distancing and safety requirements from the state were unworkable based on the district’s existing facilities and buses.

The Rhode Island Department of Education, however, subsequently asked Cranston to resubmit its reopening plans with a full return scenario incorporated.

“The hybrid model was our suggestion in lieu of the full in-person … We were asked to amend our plan,” she said, with an emphasis on returning younger students to the classroom.

Families have also been offered the option to opt for full distance learning, which Nota-Masse last week said is “proving to be a very challenging proposition for the district” given the limited information available regarding how the school year will begin. She said nearly all of the district’s families have responded to a survey on that option, and the split has been “about 50-50.”

She also said: “Our staff, our Cranston certified teachers, will be doing the distance learning.” Matching teachers to needed positions once the distance and in-person learning cohorts have been identified, she said, will be another challenge that requires “flexibility.”

Nota-Masse on Monday said transportation remains a “huge concern,” given that state guidelines allow for roughly 50 percent of a bus’s capacity to be used at one time. Meeting guidelines regarding building ventilation and cleaning, she said, are other areas of continued focus. Teachers and building staff have cleared rooms as much as possible to provide maximum spacing, she said, and each room is being evaluated for readiness.

During a work session of the School Committee on Aug. 11, Nota-Masse said it has “been an extremely difficult summer for parents, families, teachers, administrators, because things have changed very often over the past several weeks.”

“We have done our best to try to communicate any kind of changes, any planning, and decisions that we have made,” she said, urging families with questions to send an email to reopencps@cpsed.net.

During the work session, she added: “I want kids in school. I’m going on the record. I want kids in school, they should be in school … My job is to make sure that school is a safe place on many levels. If at some point I do not feel that our buildings are safe places for our staff and our kids, I’m going to tell you. And then we have to make some serious decisions.”

Raimondo’s announcement of the delayed start to the school year, which came during her weekly COVID-19 briefing, had been expected.

“We’re doing this because it gives schools a little bit more time to be ready … We’re going to keep working 24/7 to get these schools ready to receive our children safely,” the governor said during the Aug. 12 briefing.

The statewide school calendar for the year remains in place with Raimondo’s announcement, and the final day of school will now be June 25, which she said provides “at least 177 days of school” for Rhode Island students.

Three additional professional development days have been added, from Sept. 9-11, which the governor said will allow teachers additional time to learn new protocols and otherwise adapt ahead of what will be a very different kind of school year.

Raimondo acknowledged some will be frustrated by the delays, but she said educators have been asking for “just a little bit more time” to address a long list of issues ahead of the start of school. She also said a range of “operational readiness” issues remain – from classroom spacing to building ventilation and transportation – and that current data will be key in making a determination over whether in-person classes can safely resume.

“You know how we’re going to decide whether you’ll be fully in-person, fully virtual or somewhere in the middle … I can’t make a decision, we can’t make a decision, based upon the data of Aug. 16 for what we think the prevalence of the disease is going to be like on Sept. 14,” she said, adding: “This is something that changes every day, every week.”

Pressure has mounted, however, from elsewhere in the educational community – including from the state’s largest teachers unions – for Raimondo to go further and continue distance learning for the start of the new school year. Supporters of that approach point to a wide range of logistical and safety concerns, suggesting the safety of students and educators cannot at this point be guaranteed.

Early last week, the Warwick School Committee voted 4-1 in favor of starting the year with distance learning. That action drew a striking, blunt response from Raimondo, who called it “wrong-headed.”

“I could not be more disappointed in the vote that they took,” she said. “They just threw in the towel on those kids, and I think the children of Warwick deserve better.”

Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green added: “It’s not OK. We should be doing the work up until the day that we go back to school.”

Raimondo criticized Warwick’s schools for their approach to reopening plans – “They didn’t even do the hard work to give us a plan on in-person learning” – and later said the situation has led her to consider whether the use of legal action or funding leverage to force a change in the district’s course of action might be feasible and appropriate.

“In light of what happened, I am looking into the state’s options. Funding options, legal options … I’d rather take the approach of, how can we help you get there?” she said.

Raimondo also discussed the concerns of teachers unions and educators more broadly. While acknowledging fears over safety as “legitimate” and restating pledges that teachers will not be sent “into a work environment that’s not safe,” she said: “To just say ‘I’m afraid to go to work’ is not a reason to not go to work … A general fear of the virus is not a justifiable reason to not go to work.”

Infante-Green also sought to allay concerns of families, reiterating the previous statewide guidance that there will be an option for all students to take part in distance learning rather than in-person classes for at least the first part of the school year.

“We’ve already been really clear about parents having choice … We are not compromising safety as we move forward,” she said.

Raimondo addressed a handful of specific logistical issues facing the school reopening process, including testing.

One of the metrics to be used in the reopening determination, she said, is the available of testing for all students and staff with results available within 48 to 72 hours – and “we’re not there yet.” She did announce, however, that Rhode Island has acquired eight rapid testing machines and joined a 10-state collaborative to acquire testing kids for school settings.

In terms of transportation – which she called “one of the biggest operational challenges” – Raimondo said a team of experts, including Rhode Island National Guard and Department of Transportation personnel, has been assembled to focus on the issue.

“I’m going to push you to continue to be creative, and we’re going to help,” she said.

Asked whether using National Guard vehicles and drivers could be part of the solution, Raimondo said: “Maybe … We’re looking at everything. I don’t have an answer, but it’s on the table.”

schools, Covid

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