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Portsmouth addresses concerns over re-opening at forum

Mask-wearing and mental health issues brought up by parents

By Kristen Ray
Posted 8/5/20

PORTSMOUTH — School officials spent over an hour reviewing their final school reopening plan and answering questions from parents last Thursday, July 30, during a virtual, live-streamed …

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Portsmouth addresses concerns over re-opening at forum

Mask-wearing and mental health issues brought up by parents

Posted

PORTSMOUTH — School officials spent over an hour reviewing their final school reopening plan and answering questions from parents last Thursday, July 30, during a virtual, live-streamed forum. 

According to Superintendent Thomas Kenworthy, only some slight adjustments had to be made after the R.I. Department of Education (RIDE) looked over the district’s proposal, submitted on July 17, and offered feedback.

“There were a few things we had to tweak as well, but like I said on our end, they were very minor,” he said. 

The full plan was posted on the school department’s website by last Thursday. Together with Director of Pupil Personnel Services Lisa Colwell and Assistant Superintendent Liz Viveiros, officials dove a little deeper into the details of what school reopening would look like this fall in Portsmouth: 

Transportation 

With the current regulations outlined by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Mr. Kenworthy said transportation remains a challenge for the district. That guidance, he said, limits capacity to only one child per seat (unless students are coming from the same household), and seats must be assigned. 

Based on nearly 1,300 responses from a survey taken by parents in early July — representing roughly half of all district families — 53 percent of them would still require busing if kids end up going back to school this fall. Yet the majority of those families felt they could arrange an alternative if the district was ultimately unable to provide busing for their child. 

“We really need to, as much as possible, to utilize those types of alternate types of transportation,” said Mr. Kenworthy. Little Compton, which sends its high school students to Portsmouth, will be conducting its own transportation survey, he added. 

Social distancing, mask-wearing

As the lead on the Health and Safety reopening subcommittee, Ms. Colwell clarified some questions and concerns from families about social distancing and mask-wearing. 

“There’s been a lot of questions about whether or not … how groups can mingle or not mingle,” she said. 

Stable groups can coexist with other stable groups throughout the day, Ms. Colwell said — they just need to remain at least 14 feet apart from one another.

“We’re talking about places like the cafeteria or recess,” she said. 

As for face masks, Ms. Colwell said that exceptions will be made for students with disabilities or who have health conditions that prevent them from doing so. Though the governor has “reinforced” the importance of mask-wearing in a back-to-school scenario, Ms. Colwell said the district recognizes it will be harder for younger learners. 

“It’s going to be, in essence, a work in progress for us to be able to build up their stamina to wear the masks,” she said. 

Cleaning and testing 

Hospital-grade cleaners will be used to clean restrooms after every use by stable groups, Ms. Colwell said. However, it will be up to every individual school’s administration to work out scenarios such as when students need to use the restroom outside of their group’s scheduled time. Staff will be available to wipe down other high-touch areas (like water stations and door knobs), and every classroom will have access to disinfecting supplies. If a school has a possible or confirmed COVID-19 case, Ms. Colwell said that a deep cleaning will occur. 

Before both students and staff even enter the building, however, Ms. Colwell said they will need to complete a self-attestation form, screening them for the virus. 

Classrooms

To help illustrate what in-person classroom learning will look if students are back in school, Ms. Viveiros shared some photos as examples.

In every building, Ms. Viveiros said all items deemed “unnecessary” were removed from classrooms, stashed in either unused classrooms or storage units. At the elementary level, classrooms contained 12 student tables spaced 6 feet apart, sitting one student at either end. Plexiglass would serve as dividers between them. 

Maintaining social distance was fairly easy at the middle school, Ms. Viveiros said, thanks to double classrooms. That was harder at the high school, where desks were spaced only three feet apart, all facing the same direction. There, teacher desks were also removed, replaced with mobile ones for the upcoming school year. 

Vulnerable populations

Even if students return to the classroom, Ms. Viveiros said a distance learning option will still be made available to families who simply feel uncomfortable sending their child back to school. 

“We’re asking our families to commit to a full marking period if you elect this program,” Ms. Viveiros said. 

A distance learning teacher will be assigned to classes of these students up through sixth grade; academic coaches will work with students in grades 7-12. At the end of a marking period, Ms. Viveiros said families will have the opportunity to either opt back in to in-person learning or continue with distance learning. 

On the flip side of that, Ms. Viveiros said the district will work with families whose child may struggle with distance learning — those who may have disabilities, are multi-lingual learners or are homeless. Not everyone in those categories will qualify, however. 

“This is going to be a team-based decision,” she said. 

Other exceptions to in-person learning for these vulnerable populations may be made if the governor mandates school closures, Ms. Viveiros said, or if an outbreak of the virus were to occur, forcing a school to close or students to quarantine. 

As for special education and Section 504 meetings, she said they will be conducted either by phone or virtually; special education services will take place in the general education classroom “when possible.” When it’s not, Ms. Viveiros said “mitigation measures will be utilized,” including hand-washing and mask-wearing. 

Questions

Mr. Kenworthy, Ms. Colwell and Ms. Viveiros took some time to address some of the questions parents were asking, all submitted beforehand:

• Will my child be in trouble for removing their mask? “They won’t be in trouble,” Ms. Colwell said. “However, they may be redirected to refrain from touching friends and wearing the mask as outlined in our district plan.”

 How will breakfast/lunch/recess work? Breakfast will likely be grab-and-go, Mr. Kenworthy said, with lunch being delivered to the classroom up through sixth grade. Options were still being explored for grades 7-12, he said, and lunches would be delivered in disposable containers, Ms. Colwell added. As for recess, she said schools will need to “designate” areas for stable groups. 

• How will my child’s social emotional needs be met? Mental health and support staff will continue to work with students, Ms. Viveiros said, both individually and in small groups. They are also working to develop a parent hotline, she added, to offer additional mental health support.

 Can I request busing for just one way? It’s complicated, Mr. Kenworthy said, since students are assigned seats on a bus. “We’re never going to be able to give that space to another student,” he said. But, he said the district was trying to work with families “as much as possible.”

• Will there still be unified arts? Unified arts are definitely part of the plan, Ms. Viveiros said. For grades K-6, they will happen in the classroom; students in grades 7-12 will “follow the secondary model.” Physical education will occur outside when possible. 

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