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Uncertainty surrounds reentry to school in the fall

Barrington Superintendent: 'Our main goal is the health and safety of students and staff'

By Josh Bickford
Posted 6/26/20

What will school look like in the fall?

How will busing work?

Will distance learning be part of the curriculum?

Barrington Superintendent of Schools Michael Messore said district officials …

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Uncertainty surrounds reentry to school in the fall

Barrington Superintendent: 'Our main goal is the health and safety of students and staff'


What will school look like in the fall?

How will busing work?

Will distance learning be part of the curriculum?

Barrington Superintendent of Schools Michael Messore said district officials are working hard to find answers for these questions and more as they build Barrington's plans for re-entry to school in the fall. However, at this point, there are still a number of unknowns, he said.

"We need to hear what the state will be recommending," Mr. Messore said.

While the district is currently crafting plans for re-entry, many of the details will depend upon restrictions offered by the state. Class sizes, how many children are allowed to ride on a bus, and the impact on sports teams and other extracurricular activities will hinge on the state's guidelines, Mr. Messore said.

During the Barrington High School freshman orientation virtual meeting on Wednesday, June 17, officials were quick to mention the uncertainty surrounding the start of the upcoming school year.

During a recent interview, the superintendent said public school leaders were expecting the state to offer a bit more guidance last week.

"Our main goal is the health and safety of students and staff," Mr. Messore said.

Discussions of schools reopening in the fall intensified earlier this month when Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo announced during a press conference that all schools would follow a statewide calendar and that it was her goal to have full reentry to schools on Aug. 31.

The governor instructed school districts to submit plans for reentry by July 17. In Barrington, officials are building plans for a number of different scenarios — full reentry, reliance on distance learning, and hybrids including parts of both. The plans must be flexible to accommodate for Barrington's specific needs or limitations, such as the amount of available classroom space in the district's schools.

"It is important to note that schools may look different in terms of schedules and structure," Mr. Messore wrote in a districtwide email.

During the recent interview, the superintendent said the reopening of elementary schools (kindergarten through grade five) appears to be a priority for the state. He said officials have identified the need to get parents back to work in order to strengthen the economy. Mr. Messore said another priority could be the transitional grades, where students move from one school to another.

Have a question?

In Barrington, a group of administrators, teachers and others are meeting regularly to work on the re-entry plans. The group, or task force, includes the building principals, assistant principals, teacher representatives, school committee members, the district's lead nurse, the director of athletics and student activities, the director of building facilities, the superintendent, assistant superintendent and other top administrators.

"During the course of the next few weeks, we will provide information on sub-groups and focus groups that will work to carry out the planning and information gathering needed by the task force," Mr. Messore wrote in an email. "The groups will include families, community members, teachers, students, and experts in the areas identified above in the make-up of the task force."

The district has established a webpage where parents, students and others can submit questions about the upcoming school year.

"We ask for patience, as there are many questions without answers or with answers that are changing rapidly with every new day. In the next few weeks, we will provide opportunities for interactive focus groups," Mr. Messore wrote.

Paying for the changes

Mr. Messore said officials are anticipating increased costs associated with the reentry to schools in the fall.

More frequent cleaning of the schools, access to personal protective equipment for students and staff, and the need for more school buses are a few of the areas that will likely cost school districts more money in the upcoming year.

Mr. Messore said Barrington had already been anticipating an increase in transportation costs, as the district's prior contract had expired and future costs were on the rise. Now, Mr. Messore said, busing companies say there will likely be a shortage of buses and drivers as schools everywhere add buses to allow for better distancing between student riders.

In Barrington, officials are discussing a ridership program where parents would register their children for a bus or let the district know they planned to seek alternative transportation to school. In town, a number of parents drive their children to school each morning, and hundreds of children also ride their bikes or walk to school. At the high school, many older students drive themselves to school each day. Mr. Messore said some parents also may not feel comfortable placing their son or daughter on a school bus now.

Less reliance on school buses may aid the district as it builds its transportation plan.

"We don't know what transportation will look like," Mr. Messore said.

Increased enrollment?

Officials have referenced a possible increase in student enrollment in Barrington.

During a recent school committee meeting, the assistant superintendent Paula Dillon told school committee members that Barrington already has 60 students registered for next year's pre-kindergarten program. That enrollment figure is about double the current number.

School committee member Anna Clancy said she has also heard that there are a number of Barrington families with children enrolled at private schools who are considering moving them back into Barrington schools because they were not happy with the private schools' distance learning programs.

Ms. Dillon confirmed that information, stating that those transfer requests come through her office.

During a recent interview, Mr. Messore said he has also recognized increased activity in the local housing market. He said some of the people moving to town will be young families with school-age children.

The superintendent said class sizes at the elementary school level have always been a point of concern, as officials have worked to keep the classes manageable. Now with the new potential class size limits, that issue becomes even more important, he said.

"What will next year look like?" Mr. Messore said. "That's difficult to say — I don't know yet."

The move to a statewide calendar

Barrington Superintendent of Schools Michael Messore said many officials were happy to hear that Rhode Island Department of Education officials were implementing a statewide school calendar next year. The president of the school teachers union in Rhode Island, Larry Purtill, also commented on the change.

In his words: “The National Education Association Rhode Island is supportive of a statewide unified calendar for all public school districts. For this upcoming school year, it gives the entire state a starting date and serves as a goal to which we can aspire. Teachers and education support professionals will work 180 days, students will learn for 180 days, and eight days of professional development is built into that calculation... Our teachers and support professionals have raised the bar high during an unprecedented period in our history. The last few months have taught us that, should we need to engage in distance learning at any point in the 2020-2021 school year, we have the ability to do so with much greater efficiency. The health and safety of our members and students always comes first and as we move forward, we will negotiate impact and details district by district.”

Governor shares options for public schools

During a recent press conference, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo shared some of the possible scenarios for re-opening public schools in the fall.

"In order to put the health and safety of our children first, we’re asking schools to prepare for three reopening scenarios that will range from limited in-person learning to full in-person learning," she wrote in an email. "Each option will have two different sets of requirements—one for elementary and middle schools and one for high schools."

The governor added that even in the full in-person learning scenario, there will be vulnerable students who will need to continue distance learning.

"There will be students who need to quarantine. There will be students with the sniffles who need to stay home," she wrote. "All students deserve the highest quality education we can provide for every one of the 180 days of the school year, regardless whether those days take place in a classroom or at home. That is our commitment to every student."

Full in-person learning: "Full in-person learning, which is what we’re aiming for on Aug. 31, is going to require elementary and middle schools to keep kids in stable groups of 30 or fewer. That means the same 30 kids should be interacting every day—students won’t be able to go from group to group. While we do not be expect that students maintain 6 feet distance at all times within these stable groups, we will always encourage as much physical distance as possible, even within these groups. And any time more than one stable group is in the same space, they will need to keep 14 feet away from each other.

"For our high schools, we’re recommending that students stay in stable groups whenever possible, but we recognize that this will be harder to accomplish. In high schools, students and teachers will need to either keep 6 feet of distance or wear cloth face masks whenever they cannot maintain stable groups."

Partial in-person learning: "If we start to see concerning trends and need to scale back, we’ll move to our second scenario: partial in-person learning. For elementary and middle schools, this will look similar to full in-person learning. For high schools, we’ll have to scale back and will only allow 50 percent of the student body to be in the building at any one time unless stable groups can be maintained at all times."

Limited in-person learning: "If we need to restrict in-person learning even more, we’ll transition to limited-in person learning. This is where we’ll prioritize the populations that benefit the most from in-person learning, like our students with differing abilities and multilingual learners. Group sizes and capacity limits will all go down."

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