SCHOOLS

Schools plan hybrid approach as return date nears

Transportation remains significant concern as return date nears

By DANIEL A. KITTREDGE
Posted 7/15/20

By DANIEL KITTREDGE Cranston students would split their time between classroom instruction and doing work at home under a school reopening plan unveiled during a meeting of the School Committee on Monday. All students and staff would be required to wear

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SCHOOLS

Schools plan hybrid approach as return date nears

Transportation remains significant concern as return date nears

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Cranston students would split their time between classroom instruction and doing work at home under a school reopening plan unveiled during a meeting of the School Committee on Monday.

All students and staff would be required to wear washable cloth-based face coverings, with the option to bring their own or receive one from the district at no cost. Stable groups would be established for elementary students, while social distancing requirements would be in place for older children. Daily health screenings would also be mandated for all students and staff.

Transportation, meanwhile, presents a significant challenge, given that administrators say the current busing system is neither financially nor logistically feasible based on state safety guidelines.

Overall, the situation remains fluid, Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse said, and numerous questions remain unanswered. But whatever the next several weeks have in store, she said, there is no doubt that school will look very different when the new year begins Aug. 31.

“None of us wants to be in this in position … None of us wants our children to not have the full educational experience that we have come to expect and be proud of here in Cranston,” the superintendent said, describing the plan as the “best possible” under the circumstances and the product of an “all-consuming” effort on the part of the district.

She added: “We thought of every possible scenario and every possible way to be creative about this.”

The Cranston Public Schools reopening plan heads to the Rhode Island Department of Education this week for review as part of the process outlined by Gov. Gina Raimondo when she announced the Aug. 31 target date for the resumption of in-person school.

Nota-Masse cautioned members of the community that the plan is subject to change based on state guidance and the course of the pandemic. Even the reopening date, she said, could be moved in the weeks to come.

“Until we get a lot closer to the opening of school, I would just be very cautious that what we are saying is the tentative plan, it is what we are thinking about July 13,” she said. “Aug. 13 could look vastly different. Next week could look different … This is what we have at this moment in time.”

Hybrid model

Cranston’s reopening plan involves splitting students into two instructional groups. One would attend in-person classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, while the other would come to school buildings on Wednesdays and Fridays.

When not physically present in school, students would engage in “review and remediation days to practice and reinforce skills,” according to a slideshow presentation.

Mondays would be distance learning days for all students. Nota-Masse said that is due to the majority of professional development days in the statewide school calendar falling on Mondays, along with several holidays.

“Because of the restrictions on safety and quantity of children that we can have in a defined space, we need to have a hybrid model,” she said.

The plan includes provisions that would allow siblings from the same family to attend in-person classes on the same days, Nota-Masse said. Additional steps are also being taken to allow for four-day in-person instruction for “specific groups” of students, including some with special needs.

The plan will also account for students who have medical concerns that make a return to school buildings unsafe.

“So we need to have the distance learning option kind of running in the background of all of this,” Nota-Masse said.

Scenarios and key features

The plan Nota-Masse presented includes four scenarios, each based on different levels of community spread of COVID-19.

The worst-case scenario, to be enacted if spread of the virus is “substantial,” is a full return to distance learning for all students. That mirrors what was in place from mid-March – when schools abruptly closed as the crisis escalated locally – through the end of the school year.

The plan includes two separate scenarios to be used if the spread of the virus is “moderate to minimum.” The scenarios – dubbed “limited” and “partial” in-person learning – are “very similar,” Nota-Masse said, with the distinction involving “population sizes in classrooms.”

In the “limited” scenario, only 25 percent of a high school’s population would be permitted in the building at any time. Under the “partial” scenario, that would increase to 50 percent.

Nota-Masse said those restrictions, which are based on state guidelines, illustrate the difficulties the district has faced in its planning and why a hybrid model is necessary.

“There is no physical way we can have all of the kids there 6 feet apart. There just isn’t,” she said.

The final scenario, to be utilized when community spread of the virus is minimal or nonexistent, involves a full return to classrooms with distance learning utilized as needed. That scenario, however, also entails the hybrid, split-group model, which Nota-Masse acknowledged may be “confusing” to families who are expecting a full resumption of pre-pandemic school operations.

The superintendent also said the district is adjusting its curriculum to the new hybrid approach and ramping up social-emotional support through partnerships with state agencies and community organizations.

Small group supports will be provided to bridge learning gaps, and individualized education plans, or IEPs, will be reviewed to ensure students are receiving appropriate support.

Safety measures

Nota-Masse noted that the district’s plan includes distinct outlines of how operations would look at all three educational levels – elementary, middle and high school – in all four of the scenarios.

Elementary and middle school students would be kept in stable groups while in school buildings, meaning the same children would be together throughout the day. For high school students – who have a degree of variability in their schedules that would make stable groups impossible – social distancing and mask-wearing will be requiring whenever students move between groups.

“We have developed plans for general spacing and movement for arrival and departure times when students must move through the buildings throughout the day,” the slideshow presentation reads.

Nota-Masse said the district included rewashable masks in its plan due to the expense – an estimated $13,000 a day – that would be involved in providing disposable masks to students and staff.

In terms of health screenings, Nota-Masse said families would be required to screen children at home each day using either the Crush COVID RI mobile app or the Rhode Island Department of Health’s symptom checker form.

The superintendent acknowledged that screenings for staff will be far easier to implement.

“We’re still working on pieces of this plan on how to really verify that has happened with 11,000 students,” she said.

Students and staff would be required to stay home if they are sick.

In terms of dealing with positive cases or outbreaks once school resumes, Nota-Masse said the district will rely on the guidance provided through a “playbook” from the Department of Health and Department of Education. That documented is expected to arrive in August.

Nota-Masse acknowledged the challenges the new safety requirements will present and the strain that the hybrid approach will continue to place on families. She added, however: “We cannot solve the COVID impact on our state by doing things that aren’t safe.”

The superintendent also spoke of the district’s teachers who are older or have medical issues that make them more at risk. The said 143 of the district’s teachers are over the age of 60.

“That is a huge concern for us,” she said, adding that she has been in regular contact with Cranston Teachers’ Alliance president Liz Larkin and solutions are being developed to ensure the safety of educators.

The superintendent additionally noted that the district is working with community partners to address the issue of child care for staff members.

Transportation and other issues

Cranston’s schools typically transport roughly 5,000 children each day through the district’s fleet of buses – a task that financial constraints and social distancing requirements will render impossible, Nota-Masse said.

“I can’t say enough about how difficult transportation’s going to be. I’ve been in meetings with other superintendents. We’re all kind of scratching our heads,” she said.

Nota-Masse said the district has determined it would need 37 more buses by next month in order to provide transportation to all of its students. That is unattainable, she said, so the district will need to be “creative” in its approach.

“Even with the reduced capacity in our schools on any given day, we will still need to restrict the number of students who ride a bus,” the slideshow presentation reads.

Nota-Masse said steps like carpooling or arranging for groups of students to walk to school together will be encouraged. Much remains uncertain at this point, however, and there are other concerns, including how families will adapt during inclement weather and what the approach will be at schools whose locations make them unsuited to a large volume of car traffic.

In terms of food service, Nota-Masse said students will receive breakfast and lunch on a grab-and-go basis. At the secondary level, additional dining spaces will be utilized to allow students to spread out.

Nota-Masse urged families to stay-up-to-date through the district’s social media accounts and website, cpsed.net. She also said a dedicated email address, reopencps@cpsed.net, has been set up to allow for feedback and questions from the school community.

“It’s going to look different, and I can’t stress that enough … because it has to, not because we want it to,” she said.

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