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Portsmouth school district submits reopening plan

Schools prepare for in-person and distance learning (plus everything in-between) this fall

By Kristen Ray
Posted 7/22/20

PORTSMOUTH — It may still be just the middle of summer, but many within the Portsmouth school district have been hard at work planning for a still-uncertain future surrounding teaching, …

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Portsmouth school district submits reopening plan

Schools prepare for in-person and distance learning (plus everything in-between) this fall


PORTSMOUTH — It may still be just the middle of summer, but many within the Portsmouth school district have been hard at work planning for a still-uncertain future surrounding teaching, learning and COVID-19 this fall. 

Back in June, the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) released guidance for public school districts to consider when preparing for a possible return to the building, whether it was in a full, partial or limited in-person capacity. Plans were due back to the state by July 17, and also had to include strategies for distance learning. 

Over the last few weeks, said Superintendent Thomas Kenworthy, more than 100 in-district members contributed to the proposal ultimately submitted to RIDE last Friday, plans that at this time are hardly final. Mr. Kenworthy said he expects to receive feedback from the state by the end of the month, and families and staff will have an opportunity to share their thoughts via an online survey and virtual forum scheduled for Thursday, July 30. 

In the end, it will ultimately be the state’s call as to how teaching and learning proceeds on Aug. 31.   

“The key for us is really going to be trying to make sure staff is prepared to deliver the instruction whether it’s in-person or distance learning as much as possible,” Mr. Kenworthy said. 

From wearing face masks and carrying around backpacks to having lunch delivered and keeping hallways near-vacant, here’s a look at how Portsmouth is planning to tackle teaching and learning during a pandemic: 

Back in the building — mostly 

Regardless of whether the state chooses to implement a full or partial in-person scenario, Mr. Kenworthy said families with children in pre-K to sixth grade can expect a return to Hathaway and Melville elementary schools, as well as Portsmouth Middle School. Yet how the school day will operate will vary significantly from what either students or staff are used to. The goal, Mr. Kenworthy said, will be to minimize as much movement throughout the building as possible. 

At this level, that means once students enter the school, they will remain with a stable group of up to 30 — including staff — within their classrooms for most of the day. Specialized instruction will come to them, as will their lunches; movement in the hallway will be limited to one group at the elementary level and two at the middle school, as long as they do so at opposite ends. 

Younger students will have their materials individually labeled and accessibly stored in the classroom, while middle schoolers will carry their items around in a backpack throughout the day. 

“For us, we feel very good about the social distancing that we will be able to have at pre-K through sixth grades,” Mr. Kenworthy said. 

But it will be a bigger challenge for students in grades 7 through 12, whose days operate more on a rotating schedule. That’s why, in a partial reopening scenario, not everyone will be back in the building at the same time.

On Tuesday and Thursdays, grades 7, 9 and 11 would receive in-person learning, while grades 8, 10 and 12 would go to class online; on Wednesday and Fridays, that structure flips. Monday, meanwhile, would be a distance learning day for all. Both the middle and high schools are still exploring options for how to handle lunch; Mr. Kenworthy said seventh- and eighth-graders could possibly have lunch delivered to them, while the use of alternative indoor spaces and outdoor settings remain options at the high school. 

Though Portsmouth is requiring face masks for both students and staff in all settings, it will be especially important for the 7-12 grade group, which will be following the guidance offered by RIDE in the case of a full reopening. (That guidance states that if the recommended stable group structure is not possible, students must maintain six feet of distance from one another; when social distancing is not possible, face masks are required.)

“The more that students are moving around and having to switch classes … face coverings are probably going to be very important,” Mr. Kenworthy said. 

For sixth grade and below, there may be more “opportunities” to remove a mask when within a stable group, Mr. Kenworthy said, although it’s not recommended. 

Cleaning, safety and transportation

To help keep everyone safe while in the building, Mr. Kenworthy said Portsmouth plans to maximize its custodial staff and is anticipating hiring more for the duration of the pandemic. Personnel will be dispersed throughout the district, cleaning restrooms and wiping down high-touch areas such as door knobs and water stations. Teachers will also be armed with disinfecting supplies in their classrooms. 

The same will likely go for staffing additional nursing positions, Mr. Kenworthy said, as existing personnel juggle routine and COVID-19-related demands. Both students and staff are expected to complete a self-assessment screening for the virus before coming to school, and frequent hand-washing, social distancing and, of course, wearing face masks when possible, will be the new norm throughout the day. That goes for riding the bus, too. 

Transportation, Mr. Kenworthy additionally wrote in an e-mail to the Portsmouth school community Tuesday afternoon, “remains one of our biggest challenges in either our full or partial reopening scenario,” while encouraging families to fill out an online survey. Busing availability is expected to be limited at every grade level in both cases; families with children in pre-K through fourth grade will especially be impacted in a partial reopening. 

Distance learning 

Even if students return to school this academic year, distance learning will still be part of the equation, Mr. Kenworthy said. 

Should a child present symptoms of COVID-19 or have another documented medical condition necessitating they stay home, virtual instruction will be available. And while the district has yet to work out the details, Mr. Kenworthy said he hopes to extend that (limited) offer to those simply feeling uneasy about in-person learning. 

“We are going to try to offer that option as much as we can for families that also may just be uncomfortable sending their kids back,” he said. 

Should Portsmouth once again find itself in primarily a distance learning scenario, Mr. Kenworthy said the district is ahead of where it was last spring, with 1:1 capabilities already in place for every student in the district. Using G suite, teachers will deliver instruction in the fashion “we landed at the end of the year” with, he said. For vulnerable populations, limited in-person teaching arrangements would be made as needed.

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