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Portsmouth school official questions reopening plan’s cost

‘No community in Rhode Island has the resources to comply with that plan,’ says School Committee member Frederick Faerber III

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PORTSMOUTH — While school leaders develop a plan on following R.I. Department of Education (RIDE) guidelines to reopen school buildings this fall, at least one School Committee member is wondering how the district will afford it.

RIDE came out with detailed reopening guidelines on Friday (see related story for a rough overview), and each district is expected to develop its own plan to submit to the state by July 17.

Superintendent Thomas Kenworthy told the School Committee Tuesday that the district held its first meeting regarding the reopening plan earlier that day. A 21-member steering committee, representing various stakeholders and demographics in the district, will lead the effort that will seek input from three main school subcommittees, he said.

Mr Kenworthy said he will begin sending out a weekly communication to the entire school district, including staff and families, this Thursday, June 25. By the school board’s next meeting on Aug. 11, the district should have some feedback on its plan from the state, he said.

The committee’s vice-chairman, Frederick Faerber III, said he reviewed RIDE’s reopening guidelines.

“The first thing that occurred to me is, it looks like a very expensive plan,” Mr. Faerber said. “It strikes me that no community in Rhode Island has the resources to comply with that plan.” 

As an example, he said the guidelines seem to encourage the construction of units with plastic shields at the high school level. “There must be a way to do this uniformly throughout the state. If we have to have these materials, the state should be purchasing them,” Mr. Faerber said.

As for school buses, the state is recommending one person per seat, he noted. “How many buses do we have to run to get the (students) home?” he asked.

Mr Kenworthy agreed there will be additional costs for transportation, cleaning and other items. School districts should be receiving more money, he said, through the federal CARES Act coronavirus relief funding program. U.S. Sen. Jack Reed in late March announced more than $115 million in federal funding for Rhode Island education. The district will also have to write for additional federal grants, he said.

Committee member Allen Shers said he was confused by some of the guidelines he’s heard about, especially when it comes to social distancing.

“There are still some things to figure out,” the superintendent replied.

‘Pods’ of 30

However, the sizing of groups and how far apart students must be will differ by setting and age level, he said. For example, elementary and lower middle school students will be together with teachers in groups of about 30 and remain together as a “pod” as much as possible throughout the day, he said. Obviously, that’s harder to do with the higher grades, Mr. Kenworthy said.

The most challenging groups will be gym and band classes, since they involve so many students in one spot, he said.

Committee Chairwoman Emily Copeland said the main goal is to “get the most students back safely in school for the longest period that’s possible.”

However, she challenged administrators to think outside the box. 

“This new reality doesn’t have to go back to the same reality,” she said, noting that outdoor classrooms could be expanded throughout the district. 

Safety is paramount, she said, “but I would hope that within those confines we go above and beyond … and basically elevate education in Portsmouth. It’s a pretty tall order; I get that.”

School calendar OK’d

The committee voted unanimously to approve a school calendar for 2020-21 that adheres to the statewide calendar mandated through Gov. Gina Raimondo’s executive order.

Mr. Kenworthy said the calendar doesn’t differ much from the district’s original. School starts on Aug. 31, 2020, and ends on June 16, 2021. The statewide calendar includes breaks in February and April, the same as in Portsmouth, he added. 

There will be no snow days for any district under the new calendar, which shouldn’t be a problem in light of how students have been learning over the past several months, the superintendent said.

“We’ve certainly proven we have the capability to employ distance learning when needed,” Mr. Kenworthy said.

Upcoming meetings

The School Committee will meet at 7 p.m. on the following Tuesdays: Aug. 11 and Aug 25. Unless the statewide COVID-19 directives change, both meetings will be virtual.

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.