Parents are heard as school board approves reopening

Parents are heard as school board approves reopening

Bumpy road ahead as leaders prep for students’ voluntary return

PAWTUCKET – The last school district in Rhode Island to send students back into schools will be doing so for only a few months before the 2020-2021 school year comes to a close.

After facing mounting pressure from parents who want the option to send their children back to school, the Pawtucket School Committee reversed course last week and voted to approve the superintendent’s school reopening plan, leaving School Department officials to scramble to figure out the logistics from busing, substitute teacher shortages, reshuffling of schedules, and more.

The School Committee had voted in January to reject Supt. Cheryl McWilliams’ reopening plan and continue with distance learning through the end of the school year, but voted unanimously during its Feb. 9 virtual meeting to accept her gradual reopening plan.

The new plan, as outlined by McWilliams at the school board meeting, calls for grades 1-6 to return beginning March 1, grades 7-8 to go back on March 15, and high school students to take part in a hybrid model on March 29.

McWilliams told The Breeze that she is pleased the School Committee approved her recommendation, saying that getting more students back in school is the right thing to do.

“I believe that we can do it, but it won’t be without its challenges,” she said. “It’s important to note that it’s not perfect anywhere. … We’re in a pandemic, and we just have to be flexible.”

At the meeting almost 40 people spoke during public comment, both for and against reopening schools. A stream of parents and some teachers in favor of sending children back listed several reasons including that students are suffering both academically and socially by being home and are struggling with depression and anxiety. Some kids are also complaining about technology glitches and about staring at the computer for extended periods of time.

In-person learning will not be mandatory. Approximately 58 percent of students across the district want to return to in-person learning, while the other 42 percent want to stay with distancing learning, McWilliams said on Sunday.

“That’s what makes it a little challenging,” she said. “You’re almost needing to double the staff.”

Parents who have been advocating for a return to in-person learning are getting what they’ve been asking for for months, but there are certainly scenarios that will send students right back home. If a teacher or student in one classroom contracts COVID-19, it will be back to distance learning as everyone quarantines, McWilliams noted. If a teacher is absent or needs to teach from home for whatever reason and a substitute can’t be located, it’s back to distance learning for that classroom.

With a statewide shortage of substitutes, the superintendent said the district is doing the best it can. “We haven’t been able to secure them at this point, but we’re trying our best,” she said.

McWilliams said school officials have been working 24/7 on the logistics of the reopening plan to make sure it’s the best, easiest gradual return as possible. “March 1 is going to come up very soon,” she said, admitting that the transition will be difficult. “Are there going to be some bumps in the road? Yes.”

As part of the plan, some students will have new teachers for the remainder of the school year.

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School officials were set to spend this week creating new schedules and assigning students to classrooms, McWilliams said. “There will be changes at all levels,” she said, adding that the goal is to disrupt schedules as minimally as possible. They first need to look at which teachers have special accommodations that prevent them from returning to teach in person and how many of their current students want to return. That will require some reshuffling of classrooms, she noted.

While McWilliams said they will do their best to move teachers from classroom to classroom as much as possible, there will be instances when students will need to pass in the hallways, so they will be working on staggering those times to minimize contact.

Busing is McWilliams’ biggest concern, she noted, since the bus company is facing a shortage of drivers. She said elementary school parents will be notified about busing at the end of this week. Buses can only take 50 percent of their normal load, or 30 children versus 60. She said because of the split between kids returning and staying at home, it might work out.

The hybrid schedule for the high schools is still being figured out, she said, but noted that all students will be distance learning on Mondays. The goal is to have in-person learning at least two days a week but more if possible. “We still have a month to work that out,” she said.

Students in special needs populations, no matter what grade, will be in school five days a week, she added.

McWilliams told School Committee members that while the school buildings are not all perfect, they are ready to be occupied again. Before the holiday break in December, air purifiers, delivered by the state, were installed and tested in all of the schools. “We’re running our schools in a safe way with the appropriate (personal protective equipment) and following the guidelines as best we possibly can,” she said.

While six feet of distance cannot always be maintained, students and staff will be wearing masks and learning in stable pods, she said, which is permitted under health guidelines.

State officials have criticized school leaders in Pawtucket for being too cautious and keeping the majority of students out of school since the start of the year, with Gov. Gina Raimondo specifically calling out Pawtucket to try harder to bring students back.

Before the school board voted, Joe Baxter, a former school board member, said “what seems lost in all of this discussion, what parents are simply asking for, is equity and choice. … that same equity that has been granted to the parents and students of every other district in this state.” Baxter asked committee members to accept the plan.

Not everyone spoke in favor of returning to in-person learning at this time, including Jennifer McCaughey, a special educator at Shea High School. She said she yearns for the day when all students can return but she’s concerned about the ability to maintain a safe environment for students and staff, especially with many high school students working essential jobs, increasing their chances of contracting and spreading the virus, as well as the fact that there are no stable pods at the high school level.

School Committee members reassess

School Committee Chairman Jay Charbonneau told The Breeze ahead of the Feb. 9 meeting that he didn’t expect the committee to change its previous votes to stay closed and that member Joanne Bonollo, who has been an advocate of reopening schools, requested the agenda item. Following the unanimous decision to accept McWilliams’ plan, Charbonneau said he thinks the committee “overshot a little bit” in their decision to maintain virtual learning, noting that the infection rates have come down dramatically in both Pawtucket and statewide in the past few weeks. He said he heard from many parents between the two meetings that they were looking for the consistency of having their children go to school every day.

“I think you’ve seen a School Committee that not only listens to but hears parents and teachers,” Charbonneau said. “The committee is willing to reassess.”

At the meeting, after seconding Bonollo’s motion to approve McWilliams’ recommendation, school board member Erin Dube said her votes have always been in the interest of keeping the most consistent environment for students, but she’s had numerous conversations with parents who say distance learning is not consistent nor working for them. She added she’s heartened that the COVID-19 infection rate in Pawtucket is half of what it was when the board voted a month ago to continue distance learning.

“I hear everyone who spoke on this call. Some see this as a tough choice and some see this as the easiest choice in the world,” she said.

Member Stephen Larbi said there’s “no real right answer” but what they can do is “put the power back” into families’ hands to choose what’s best for their children.

Bonollo said in her 14 years on the School Committee she’s never seen a committee go against a superintendent, referring to the decision last month to reject McWilliams’ reopening plan. She said she saw that as disrespectful to the superintendent and her leadership.

“I’m glad today that people have re-evaluated where they stand on COVID and what it has done to our district and that we need now to put the pieces back together,” she said, adding that she will listen better to McWilliams in the future.

Member Joe Knight responded, saying that his vote wasn’t meant as a sign of disrespect but was based on the extent of community spread at the time. “We voted our consciences, which Ms. Bonollo, if you didn’t think it was your conscience, you shouldn’t have voted it,” he said.

McWilliams told The Breeze that while she was surprised by the vote in January, she didn’t feel disrespected, understanding it’s a challenging time and community spread of the virus was high at the time.

From the vote in January to the vote last week, Charbonneau said committee members heard from many parents and community members and had the opportunity to reassess its decision.

“That’s what makes this city great,” he said. “(People) get involved, they advocate,” which allows others to adapt their thinking.

Mayor Donald Grebien thanked the School Committee for their decision.

“I am proud to know that the members of the School Committee listened to the concerns of all stakeholders in this process and did their due diligence to get the students back in the classroom,” he said in a statement. “Our committee has prioritized safety and consistency throughout these challenging times, and I am thankful for all the hard work they, the administrators, and teachers have put in to develop a plan for a safe return to school. Our students deserve this opportunity to safely learn in an environment designed for it.”