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Portsmouth schools say they’re ready

About 17 percent of students going with distance learning; breakfasts and lunches free to all through Dec. 31

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PORTSMOUTH — The desks have been separated, the rooms checked for proper ventilation, and face masks are now the rule. 

After a pandemic that sent hundreds of students home to learn last spring, school officials say they’re finally ready for most of them to return to classrooms starting Monday, Sept. 14. 

“I am comfortable we’ve taken all precautions to ensure proper spacing and all safety protocols,” Superintendent Thomas Kenworthy told the School Committee Tuesday night during an update on the school reopening plan.

According to Assistant Superintendent Elizabeth Viveiros, a total of 378 pupils, making up 16.75 percent of the overall student population, had opted for full distance learning as of last Friday.

That number is broken down by school as follows:

• Hathaway: 80 students (19 percent of that school’s population)

• Melville: 59 (17 percent)

• Middle school: 112 (17 percent)

• High school: 127 (14 percent)

However, those figures were considerably higher as recently as the beginning of last week, Ms. Viveiros said, explaining that many families reconsidered after they were re-surveyed on Friday. At the start of last week, about 24 percent of students were going with distance learning, she said. 

“That number (378) was well over 500 last week. We feel like we’re in a really good place moving forward,” she said.

Phased-in schedule

“All students, one way or another, will start on Monday the 14th, either through distance learning or in person,” said Mr. Kenworthy.

As has been previously reported, students are returning under a phased-in approach that school leaders say will enable them to work out any final details needed in relation to transportation, distance learning, and health and safety precautions. 

For example, at the high school during the week of Sept. 14, life skills students in grades 9-12 will be at the school for in-person learning, while all others will be learning from home. 

“Students who are in our life skills program across middle and high school and elementary are coming back in in-person scenarios,” said Lisa Colwell, the district’s director of pupil personnel services. She added the governor has made it clear that special ed students and other “vulnerable” populations such as pupils with IEPs, will perform much better academically if they are taught in person.

“There’s been ongoing planning for individual students with IEPs for services and transportation depending on what families have chosen — distance learning or in person,” she said. The district has also hired a “float nurse” to assist with any additional medical needs across all schools.

Starting the following week, life skills students will remain at the high school while other students will begin trickling in according to grade and their place in the alphabet. The same will be happening at other schools; by the week of Sept. 28, all students going with in-person learning will be in elementary school classrooms.

Gov. Raimondo, while acknowledging parents have the right to choose full distance learning for their children, has said she expects all schools to open fully by Oct. 13.

“We’re going to take a wait-and-see approach,” said Mr. Kenworthy. “We’re going to open the schools under this scenario … We’ll see how things progress from the state from there.”

Ventilation

Based on the preliminary feedback he’s received from the state walkthroughs of school buildings last Friday, Mr. Kenworthy said he’s confident the classrooms are ready. The district is still waiting for a formal update from the state, he said.

While acknowledging that none of the district’s buildings are new, the superintendent said “we have working ventilation in all of our schools.”

Windows will be open and a face mask policy will be in effect. Teachers also plan to take classes outside whenever possible during the warmer months.

“We know that outside is best when we can do that. All of our schools have plans to take students outside as much as possible,” he said.

Mr. Kenworthy showed photos of some of the classrooms in all four schools. Desks have been separated to allow proper spacing at the high school and middle school, while a bigger overhaul was done at the two elementary schools — new, six-foot-long white tables feature protective shields in the center to divide pairs of students.

“By doing the alphabet split, there will be only half of the class in the room at any one time,” Mr. Kenworthy said.

Parental concerns

During the public comment portion of the meeting, which was held before the reopening update, a Hathaway parent, Tara Aboyoun, shared several concerns.

She said the outdoor learning plan should be revisited, since there is plenty of room at Hathaway to accommodate more students outside.

“I don’t understand why there are only four outdoor learning areas. There is so much space,” Ms. Aboyoun said. 

In addition, one isolation room at the school doesn’t sound like enough, she said. A camp at Sail Newport had two isolation rooms “and they had fewer students,” Ms. Aboyoun said.

She also requested that chorus not be held at the school. But if it is, the group should meet only on nice days when they can be outside, she said.

Another one of her questions was addressed by Ms. Viveiros later in the meeting. Ms. Aboyoun commented that three distance learning teachers in the entire school seemed inadequate spread out over 20 classrooms.

Ms. Viveiros, however, said there are three additional staff members at Hathaway — and two extra at Melville — who have been assigned to distance learning.

Everything else seems to be in place, she said, “We’ll have a Google classroom set up for all of our teachers. They’re ready to go,” she said, adding that students will have links to their assignments and to teaching sessions. 

All Chromebooks were distributed last Friday, with more going to any student who hasn’t yet registered. The district has scheduled virtual Chromebook information sessions for parents and guardians of students in K-8 on Thursday, Sept. 10. 

“This idea of parent professional development is a wonderful idea,” said Committee Chairwoman Emily Copeland.

Free meals

Perhaps the most surprising bit of news revealed Tuesday night concerned school meals.

According to Mr. Kenworthy, the U.S. Department of Agriculture program that governs the district’s school lunch program is allowing all schools to operate “under the summer food rules.”

That means that up until Dec. 31 or until funding runs out – “whatever that means,” said the superintendent — breakfast and lunch will be available for free to all students in the district. 

“This is very good news,” said Mr. Kenworthy, noting the decision came down just last week.

There may be plenty of families who still want to pack lunches for their children, he said, but the district wants everyone in the school community to be aware of the opportunity.

Grab-and-go meal service for distance learners — similar to what was done in the spring — will operate from the high school parking lot, he said.

Committee members expressed surprise by news of the free meals. 

“This is the first I’ve heard about it,” said Ms. Copeland, adding that she also feels the district is ready for schools to open.

“Now we just have to wait until the day arrives, I guess.”

Upcoming meetings

The School Committee will next meet, most likely online, at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 22, and Tuesday, Oct. 13.

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