School Committee gently re-opens school

Thu, 11/19/2020 - 6:45pm

With pressure coming from those who want to keep the school closed and those who want to keep it open, the School Committee, on the recommendation of Supt. Mike Convery, came to a compromise by allowing three grades to return to in-person learning on Wednesday, Nov. 18.

The three grades — kindergarten, and grades one and four — are returning to a building that has undergone a deep clean ing after two students tested positive for Covid-19 a couple of weeks ago, and after one student came in contact with a person who tested positive and had to quarantine, as well as another student who tested positive. Convery said high school students aren’t returning because there is an “additional need for contact tracing.” The number of students in the three returning grades is 38, according to Principal Kristine Monje.

The committee members were aware they were stepping into uncharted territory, but Convery, while acknowledging that some parents were unhappy with the decision, and with a teacher’s union that wanted to continue online learning until the end of the month, nonetheless felt this was the best decision for all. After the school initially closed the plan was to not return until the end of November.

The school’s “pod system” — which keeps students in specific groups — would still be in place, “and there will be separate entrances and separate bathrooms,” adding “it’s important to note that this information is changing constantly,” said Convery.

With that, Convery said, “I believe and understand there is a high anxiety level.” He said he was anxious himself and “I’m not in as close contact with students as our teachers, but I did get confirmation from Dr. Warcup before he was tested and he said that it was reasonable what we outlined here. Obviously not everyone is happy but making everyone happy is not what superintendents are doing now. I believe the building is safe for students and for the staff who are able to return.”

Teacher Matt Moran, representing the Teachers Association, said that union members had met earlier that day and “at the present time is not in favor of bringing back students to the building prior to the original date of Nov. 30, 2020, especially with these new cases. There are recent test results pending and more testing will be necessary regardless of the results.” He noted that Rhode Island Federation of Teachers has also recommended pausing in-person learning until the end of the month.

“I disagree with that,” said Convery. He said the pods were established “knowing that cases would break out. Nobody thought we wouldn’t get hit. I was surprised we went as long as we did without a case. I still believe the building is safe and we can bring back the students as we’ve discussed.” Convery said that “some teachers are not opposed to coming back into the building and they are comfortable with the students coming back. One thing I do agree with Matt about is that this could change tonight.”

He said that “I don’t think it’s irresponsible, which was one word used today about myself.”

School Committee member Persephone Brown said, “In terms of the teachers and their concerns, I want them to know they are heard.” She then raised the point about families who may be traveling for the Thanksgiving holiday and what that would mean when those students returned to school. Brown asked if there was any way to track who was traveling, but Convery said he had no authority to ask families what they do outside of school.

“Is there a way to make our school safer post-holiday?” Brown asked.

“That’s a good question,” said Convery.

“I wouldn’t want any details, but just to ask out of consideration,” said Brown. “It is important for every family to know that their kids are able to return and safely. I just think it’s a consideration.”

“Parents have a choice as to whether they want to send their kids back in,” said Principal Kristine Monje. “We’re not going to force anyone to send their kids in as far as being in the building. We’re all worried. They’re all our kids and I’m worried just as anybody else. There are parents who say please come back, open your doors, and people have called us on that. It’s a bad situation. In this case this is the best choice we can make at this hour.”

Convery said that five tents and 40 outdoor tables have been ordered through the state’s “Take It Outside” program but they probably would not arrive until the spring. With a vaccine possibly on the way, Convery said “with any luck at all we won’t need them but we’ll have them for future events.”

In other news, member Jessica Willi was elected as the new chair of the School Committee, succeeding long-time chair Bill Padien, who opted not to run for re-election this year. Member Annie Hall was elected as secretary.

“Thank you to Bill for his 20 years of service to the School Committee. He did not want us to say anything at his last meeting, but he’s not here now, so thank you for volunteering so many years with the best interest of this school at heart,” said Willi. It was also the first meeting for returning member Pat Doyle and new member Charlie Weber.