Busing stands in the way of a full return to school

Busing stands in the way of a full return to school

NORTH PROVIDENCE - As required by the state, North Providence shared its draft school re-opening plan with the public on July 31, posting the more than 100-page document to the school department’s website.

The school department created a Joint Task Force for Reopening Our Schools to develop the three-pronged plan for reopening schools while addressing the challenges of the current pandemic.

The draft plan, under review by the Rhode Island Department of Education, paints a picture of what the 2020/2021 school year may look like. According to the document, the district’s goal is to commit to a “100 percent in-person return,” but that goal may not be feasible due to transportation limits.

Under the draft plan, distance learning will be offered as an option for all North Providence students if they are medically fragile, unable to attend or uncomfortable with in-person classes.

A typical distance learning school day would last from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., beginning with morning announcements, check-ins and assignments from 9 a.m. to noon, lunch/recess, then an afternoon session of assignments and teacher check-ins.

Art, physical education and library assignments would be posted on Google Classroom, with a weekly Google meeting. Band would take place virtually.

A partial or limited re-opening would allow only 25-50 percent of the school population to be in the building at once.

In a partial scenario, North Providence students would be split by last name. Students in Group A (last names A through M) would attend school in person on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, while Group B (last names N through Z) would attend school in person on Thursdays and Fridays.

Monday would be a virtual instruction day for all, and students would engage in virtual learning on days their group didn’t attend school.

Under a full or partial re-opening, stable groups of up to 30 would be maintained at both the elementary and middle schools to help mitigate the spread of the virus. North Providence High School would follow a more flexible approach, with students wearing face masks where social distance or stable groups cannot be maintained.

Under a limited re-opening, stable groups would be limited to 15 or fewer people in elementary and middle school classrooms. The high school would choose either smaller stable groups of 15, or to house approximately one fourth of its total student body at one time.

In common areas such as the gymnasium or cafeteria, groups would be spaced 14 feet apart. Visitors would not be allowed under a partial or limited re-opening. Elementary students, will be expected to follow a bathroom schedule, and lunch will mostly be held in the classroom.

During recess, stable groups will be assigned to designated areas.

If a school employee tests positive for COVID-19, they will follow a strict set of reporting protocols and must test negative before returning to work.

Parents will be asked to screen their children for symptoms at home prior to every school day. If a child tests positive for COVID-19, they must remain home until their symptoms have passed for at least three days - and at least 10 days since their symptoms first appeared.

If necessary, the district will follow Rhode Island Department of Health guidance, which may include closing one or more classrooms, or an entire school, for a specific number of days in the event of an outbreak. The district would then implement its distance learning plan.

No matter which plan the state and town choose to implement, North Providence school leaders promised to pay special attention to the relationship between students, teachers and families on distance learning days.

The district is currently assessing its staff and student learning needs, surveying teachers to determine the number of staff who may require medical leaves and/or accommodations.

Busing limits full return

Based on data from a survey sent out to all North Providence parents and guardians, approximately 71 percent were in favor of a full in-person return to school on Aug. 31.

“Unless, or until RIDE and RIDOH change the ridership guidelines to include a maximum of 50 students per bus, there can be no full implementation schedule created,” the district’s re-opening plan reads. “Our transportation company, Durham, has indicated after careful study and examining all scenarios that we would not be able to conduct transportation for our district if we were to return at 100 percent capacity.”

The Department of Education has indicated its intent for students to sit one per seat on the bus, limiting each bus to less than 25 students.

The re-opening plan North Providence submitted to RIDE said that guideline is not “educationally sound on many levels,” and that the district would need to put two students in each seat, while requiring face masks, to open schools again this fall.

Fifty-eight percent of high school parents indicated they would prefer to pick up and drop of students next year. The district is currently surveying all eligible families to see how many plan to provide their own transportation next year.

Drastic changes would also need to be made in scheduling, classroom sizes, lunch sizes and specialists’ instructional practices in order to facilitate a full return to school this fall.

If the elements of a full return do not align before fall, the district said it would be forced to implement a hybrid plan, splitting students by alphabet or prioritizing certain grades for in-person learning.

Officials said there is “no question” that a hybrid return to school will cause issues for parents with respect to child care, work schedules and their ability to assist students with virtual learning, however considering all of the variables and guidelines, “this is the only viable option to keep student and staff safety at the forefront of all we do.”

The document continues, “The current RIDE guidelines for classroom pod sizes, cafeteria populations and gathering sizes force this (hybrid) schedule and these limitations to be put in place.”