North Smithfield parents raise concerns about reopening plan

North Smithfield parents raise concerns about reopening plan

NORTH SMITHFIELD – Like in most communities around the state, North Smithfield’s school reopening plan is generating more questions than answers, with parents taking to social media to raise concerns about the plan last week.

Last Thursday, July 23, Supt. Michael St. Jean attempted to answer those questions during a virtual community forum. Reading through questions submitted via email and during the forum itself, St. Jean addressed everything from mask-wearing to bus routes, with many of the answers remaining uncertain at this time.

One of the biggest questions from parents, he said, was whether students would have the option to continue full-time distance learning in the fall. As of Thursday, he said, the Rhode Island Department of Education had given its written consent for the district’s “Virtual Academy,” an online option that would allow students to opt into full distance learning.

“The distance learning that we run this current year is not going to be the same distance learning that we ran last year,” he said. “It will be different, it will be improved.”

St. Jean said this year’s distance learning would have more structure, but stopped short of promising students could virtually opt into classroom experiences taking place in the schools. That situation, he said, could have legal complications around student privacy concerns that were still being worked out.

In a survey of about 700 student families, he said, 33 percent said they would choose distancing learning if given the choice this year.

The number of parents who choose to take advantage of distance learning could have a serious impact on what the plan looks like for those who remain. Earlier this month, the North Smithfield Public Schools submitted three potential plans for school reopening to RIDE. All three plans include a combination of distance and in-person learning, with Monday reserved as a distance learning day throughout the district.

In the first plan, all students would attend class in person Tuesday through Friday. That plan, said St. Jean, presents serious issues around social distancing, with students unable to fully distance in the classrooms.

In the second plan, students in grades pre-K through 4, along with special needs students, would return to school full-time Tuesday through Friday. Students in grades 6 through 12 would be on a hybrid schedule that would include two days in the classroom and three days at home each week, with the days determined by the student’s last name. The district had not yet determined which schedule grade 5 would follow.

In the third plan, all students would be on a hybrid schedule with two days in the classroom each week.

“That’s not ideal, because we get it. Parents need to go to work, they need to arrange care,” said St. Jean.

Depending on how many families take advantage of full-time distance learning, he said, those plans could allow for different levels of distancing in the classrooms. RIDE had originally urged six feet between desks but later dropped that recommendation to three feet, a change that raised concerns among some parents.

If enough families took advantage of distance learning, he said, the district might be able to bring back the remaining students on Mondays.

“I can’t commit to anything just yet. We still have to go through with our staff and our team,” he said.

RIDE has indicated it plans to make a final decision on what type of reopening model schools should pursue by Aug. 17. St. Jean agreed with parent comments that that date was too late for both parents and schools.

“We need to have a line in the sand, and we need to know how schools are going to open and what schools are going to look like,” he said. “We need to set things up. Our parents need to make arrangements.”

Parents also raised concerns about masks. While the district had previously indicated it will not enforce mask wearing among students, St. Jean urged parents to follow the recommendation to have their children wear masks, especially when moving about the hallways or buses.

He also answered questions on whether the schools would be running fans and air conditioners or shutting them off for fear they could increase the transmission risk of COVID-19. The middle and high schools, he said, are currently undergoing air flow analyses to determine the risk, while North Smithfield Elementary School is in the midst of a complete overhaul of its HVAC system.

“I don’t know that answer, but we’re not going to be running and doing something that’s not part of the CDC and the Department of Health (recommendations),” he said.

Aleksandra Norton, a local parent, raised the possibility of ordering instant COVID-19 test strips to test students as they entered school each morning. Those strips, she said, could have a higher possibility of detecting the disease than symptom screening, since many children can remain asymptomatic.

St. Jean said he would relay the idea to the district’s nurses and said superintendents are pushing the governor’s office and the Rhode Island Department of Health to prioritize schools for COVID-19 testing. With residents currently reporting wait-times of a week or longer for lab test results, St. Jean said superintendents want the state to commit to a two-day turnaround for testing for staff, students and families.

“With the question of quarantine, we need to know right away if somebody is positive or somebody is at-risk,” he said.

Another frequent question was why the district chose Mondays instead of Wednesdays for a weekly deep cleaning of the schools. St. Jean said he would have preferred Wednesdays, but the statewide calendar with several Monday holidays made Mondays a better fit.

With the state still monitoring outbreaks in some communities and other parts of the country experiencing surges in case numbers, St. Jean said all of the plans were subject to change rapidly. He acknowledged the “roller coaster of anxiety” of the past few months and thanked families and teachers for their role in the process.

“I can’t recommend ever going through this process again,” he said.

Comments

How can learning Tuesday to Friday really educate students. Virtual learning does not really work when teaching time is dramatically reduced compared to classroom learning. Let’s just say what is the real issue. The union teachers want to work less and continue to be paid the same or more. So teachers will now only work 4 days but get paid the same. We are going in the wrong direction when it comes to education. More practice and study time increases knowledge and learning but unions want shorter weeks and less learning time. But we have no issue justifying a 2 hour sports practice everyday. Can you imagine if students and teachers practiced math every day for 2 hours. I guarantee test scores would improve. But we will use Covid to reduce teaching time and increase budgets with a dramatically reduced education. We actually need no additional funds for the 2020-2021 school year. If we need to add costs for social distancing we will get the funds from the sports program that should be cancelled if we are so concerned. But I am sure we will pay coaches even if sports are canceled. We could also reduce teachers salaries by 29% since they will only be workings 80% of the normal schedule.

Here’s a good statistic of out of control school spending for no improvement. In 1982 the school budget was 4.5 million and now the budget is $27 million. That is an annual growth rate of 5%. Who would like a job that guaranteed a 5% raise each year.

Let’s just get back to school 5 days a week just like everyone else that has to go to work 5 days a week.

I really, really try hard to not respond to blatant trolling, but there is just SO much egregiously wrong with what you wrote.

I’m already on the record saying that bringing kids back to school right now is a bad idea. I want to see the schools remain physically closed until at least September 30. Why? Here’s just a few reasons:

- We are seeing a slow but steady increase in the number of C19 cases in RI.
- Gov. Raimondo just had to stall our recovery plan and keep the state in Phase 3, with a reduction of the number of people allowed in gatherings from 25 to 15.
- Routine is critical for our students. While distance learning is by no means a perfect or even a great solution, it is a better solution than trying to divide children up by last name and send them to school two days a week, then trying to have them switch gears and distance learn three days a week. This ‘stop-and-start’ version of education will be more confusing for children to navigate, especially in earlier grades.
- One of the major factors in closing schools to begin with was to prevent students from bringing the virus home to more compromised individuals they live with, including seniors and immunocompromised relatives.
- I’d argue the safety of our students overall is pretty important, too!

You’ve been posting on here for a while, Simpson44. Your dislike of unions and of teachers in particular is well documented and never fair. Did you know our teachers have been spending their summer doing everything they can to prepare for in-person learning? We have had teachers at the schools every day trying to prep the classrooms and the facilities for students to return. They have been pouring their heart and soul into getting the kids ready for whatever is coming in terms of education next month. This is after a very graceful, shockingly fast pivot to distance learning with almost no lead time in March.

In terms of the budget, all I’ll say is that it’s wrong to think the entire budget goes to salaries. I invite you to volunteer for the Budget Committee next year so you can be part of the conversations around School and Town budget processes, and see exactly where every dollar is going.

Look, we’ve argued before about similar things. I’m never going to get through to you and convince you that our teachers -- quite a few of whom live in town -- are genuinely invested in our students and our town. I didn’t write all this for you. But if there’s anyone out there reading these comments, please, I’m begging you: don’t let this type of cynicism inform your idea about what goes on in our town. There are great people working and living here, and we’re all trying to get through this pandemic together.

Paul Jones
North Smithfield School Committee
401-757-0039

I would highly suggest that parents think about home schooling anyway. Your children will be much better off in today’s fanatical, political climate to not send your children to school districts like North Smithfield that is starting a youth indoctrination, diversity training program. Besides that’s these young teachers today, especially coming out of heavily liberal RI colleges are only going to corrupt your kids minds. The North Smithfield Committee and departments should be ashamed in allowing a program veiled as “diversity” to brainwash our children. In my opinion of course, just please take my opinion seriously! The future for this country’s survival is within our children, and it starts with parents opening their eyes to see what horrors truly await if we allow government to take over as the parents, don’t lose your children!

I find it hard to believe the censorship of the paper when you dispute local politicians with facts and figures but you publish politicians comments with no facts and just anecdotal stories. Taxpayers need to hear opinions made with sound logic and fiscally sound data driven decisions.

But we won't provide a forum for anonymous personal attacks this campaign season.

78% of the North Smithfield school department spending is salaries and benefits. Approximately 16% of each dollar of gross salary goes to fund the pension. The average 401k match in RI is 3%. The medical benefits deductible is only $1,000 for the family plan. The state of R.I. employees pay a 2,000 to 4,000 deductible. North Smithfield has seen a 9.4% decrease in enrollment over the last 10 years while we have added teachers. We added classrooms to our schools when we once had over 750 students at the high school and now we only have 500 students. Where did all the space go. From a financial and operational perspective it appears we have some areas of concern, mismanagement and room for improvement. All this spending with less than stellar test results just compare R.I. results to Massachusetts.