SCHOOLS

Phased reopening OK’d for schools

Three-step plan, approved on 6-1 vote, utilizes ‘hybrid’ approach; teachers make impassioned plea for distance learning to start year

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Cranston’s School Committee last week voted to approve a three-phase return to in-person learning starting Sept. 14 – a plan in keeping with the approach Gov. Gina Raimondo outlined when she gave almost all of Rhode Island’s school districts the “green light” to reopen buildings but at odds with safety concerns expressed by a number of educators.

The 6-1 vote on Sept. 2 came after more than two hours of public comment over Zoom. It was unclear how many people were participating via the online meeting platform – the Herald, based on the school district’s request that only those who wished to speak log on in that manner, watched the proceedings on Facebook Live. That stream had roughly 1,200 viewers at its peak.

Citywide representative Michael Traficante, committee Chairman Daniel Wall of Ward 6, and committee members Sara Tindall-Woodman of Ward 1, Kristen Haroian of Ward 2, Vincent Turchetta of Ward 4 and David Alden-Sears of Ward 5 voted in favor of the reopening plan. Ward 3 representative Paul Archetto was the sole dissenter.

The plan’s supporters said they view the phased reopening as addressing the diverse concerns of the community and providing flexibility to change course if circumstances dictate.

Distance learning, Traficante said, is “not in the best interest of the kids. We know that. We should at least try … And hopefully, things will work.”

“As long as the goal is to get all of our kids in school safely, I’m good with that,” Turchetta said early in the meeting. He later added that he supported the reopening plan “because we’re taking it in steps, and nothing is written in stone.”

“As an educator and a father, I can tell you there’s nothing I’d rather do than return to class … I think [the plan] takes the safety precautions into consideration,” Wall said, echoing the point about flexibility to change course.

Tindall-Woodman said of the plan: “It is moderate and measured and has some built in flexibility so that we can address the science and the numbers as it comes in.”

Archetto – who is a candidate for a citywide seat on the City Council this year – offered a sharply different take.

“I’m totally against this,” he said, adding: “I commend the superintendent for all the hard work. I know it’s not easy … but from my perspective, I want to put public health and safety first.”

The majority of speakers during public comment were teachers in Cranston Public Schools – and they made a virtually unanimous, and often emotional, plea to stick with distance learning for at least the first half of the school year.

Under the adopted plan, phase one would see pre-K through grade one students – as well as children in several key subgroups, such as special needs students and language learners – return for full in-person instruction between Sept. 14 and Sept. 25. During that timeframe, all other grades would utilize distance learning.

The second phase of the reopening, from Sept. 29 to Oct. 9, would return grades two, three, six and nine to classrooms. For those students, the district would utilize the “hybrid” model it proposed earlier in the reopening planning process – an approach that had been amended based on guidance from the Department of Education. Students would use distance learning on Mondays and attend in-person classes two days a week – Tuesday-Thursday or Wednesday-Friday – by alphabetical groupings.

The third phase of reopening, scheduled to begin Oct. 12 and continue “going forward” from then, would be identical to phase two but with grades four, five, seven, eight, 10, 11 and 12 returning to classrooms under the “hybrid” approach.

Echoing Raimondo and other state leaders, Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse said all families would have the option to elect full distance learning to begin the year.

The plan voted on last week differed from the three options presented in an Aug. 31 letter that Nota-Masse sent to the school community – a development the superintendent said owed to the feedback received during a four-hour Sept. 1 visit from Dr. Erin Bromage, an immunologist who is providing expert advice to Rhode Island schools on issues such as ventilation in classrooms. That visit also included personnel from the Rhode Island National Guard, Department of Education and Department of Health.

“Based on some of the things that he said to us yesterday, the plan that was put on the agenda as a baseline, as a start, we had to revise that,” Nota-Masse said during a presentation at the start of the meeting.

She added: “At this point , a full return of every student in every school is not possible.”

Under the plan and outline Nota-Masse presented, the School Committee would revisit the reopening process during upcoming meetings in September and October. In response to questions from Alden-Sears, Nota-Masse said the district’s administration will “pull the plug” on the reopening based on any issues that arise or troubling shifts in COVID-19 data.

“We are using science to guide our decisions,” she told the committee during her initial presentation.

The teachers who spoke last week raised a wide range of concerns, from a lack of proper ventilation and spacing in aging school buildings to fears over the safety of their own loved ones. A number of the speakers suggested distance learning would in fact be preferable from an instructional standpoint, given the restrictions that would be in place in physical classrooms.

Scott Berstein, a teacher at Cranston High School East, pointed to the building’s physical limitations and asked and referenced Raimondo’s acknowledgement that there will, inevitably, be COVID-19 cases among students and educators. He also spoke of evidence that the disease can have lasting health impacts for some who contract it.

“How in good faith can we force teachers and students into such an environment?” he said.

Teacher Katie Bergeron echoed that perspective: “I am not asking for this because it is easier for teachers … I am not a person who likes to gamble, especially when health and human life is at stake.”

Teacher Michael Blackburn, noting that a 15-person social gathering limit remains in effect for Rhode Island, called the return to classrooms ““inconsistent, incongruent and unconscionable.”

Kristen Buonanno, a teacher and parent of an infant, at times struggled to maintain her composure while addressing the committee. She also voiced the same anger several other speakers directed toward Raimondo, suggesting that the reopening was putting “politics before people.”

“I implore you to choose for all children, faculty and staff distance learning for at least the first semester of the school year … We need you to do the right thing in voting for full distance learning for everyone,” she said.

A number of parents expressed the similar sentiments.

“How can you even think about returning students to classrooms in Cranston when we’re not prepared?” parent Tammy Impagliazzo said, asserting that the shift in plans based on Tuesday’s consultation with a single expert demonstrates the lack of readiness.

There were a handful of speakers supportive of the reopening plan. Ed Daley called the efforts of teachers during distance learning “phenomenal,” but nonetheless described the outcome as “abysmal.” The phased reopening, he said, would address the concerns of “those of us who want to be back and face this thing head-on.”

Heidi Guerard voiced concern over equity related to distance learning, saying: “Those with the privilege of wealth will invest in privatized solutions … and those without equal access will be left behind.” She expressed support for the phased approach to reopening classrooms.

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