Valley Breeze

The Valley Breeze Pawtucket 02-17-2021

The Valley Breeze Newspapers serving the Northern Rhode Island towns of Cumberland, Lincoln, Woonsocket, Smithfield, North Smithfield, Pawtucket, North Providence, Scituate, Foster, and Glocester

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10 IN OUR SCHOOLS FEBRUARY 17-23, 2021 | VALLEY BREEZE | PAWTUCKET EDITION 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 stu- dents to take part in a hybrid model on March 29. McWilliams told The Breeze that she is pleased the School Committee approved her recom- mendation, 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 list- ed several reasons including that stu- dents are suffering both academically and socially by being home and are struggling with depression and anxi- ety. 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 man- datory. 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 chal- lenging," 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 rea- son and a substitute can't be located, it's back to distance learning for that classroom. With a statewide shortage of sub- stitutes, 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 logis- tics 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 remain- der of the school year. 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 con- cern, she noted, since the bus compa- ny 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 per- cent of their normal load, or 30 chil- dren 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 pos- sible. "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 build- ings are not all perfect, they are ready to be occupied again. Before the holi- day 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 protec- tive 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 learn- ing 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 stu- dents back. Before the school board voted, Joe Baxter, a former school board mem- ber, said "what seems lost in all of this discussion, what parents are sim- ply 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 stu- dents and staff, especially with many high school students working essen- tial 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 reopen- ing schools, requested the agenda item. Following the unanimous deci- sion to accept McWilliams' plan, Charbonneau said he thinks the com- mittee "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 meet- ings 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 second- ing Bonollo's motion to approve McWilliams' recommendation, school board member Erin Dube said her votes have always been in the inter- est 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 con- tinue 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 superin- tendent, referring to the decision last month to reject McWilliams' reopen- ing plan. She said she saw that as dis- respectful 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 SCHOOL From Page One Continues on next page MCWILLIAMS CHARBONNEAU 55 Broad Street, Pawtucket, RI 401-723-3400 Helping you See Since 1933! Having Healthy Eyes is all about Prevention, Education and Sometimes Treatment Comprehensive Eye Care The Latest in Fashion and Designer Eyewear Contact Lenses No appointment needed to browse selections or be fitted for glasses Dr. Ben Klibanoff Dr. Mona Klibanoff Dr. David Klibanoff Commitment to Quality Dependable Trusted Accurate Inspirational 6 Blackstone Valley Place, Suite #204, Lincoln, Rhode Island 02865 Phone 401-334-9555 Fax 401-334-9994 Website valleybreeze.com Making our communities stronger by telling their stories. Please consider supporting The Valley Breeze today – Visit valleybreeze.com/support In our 25 years of existence, we've been all of this and more. From the beginning, we've believed that a hyper-local news model is what best serves our readers. 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