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Portsmouth schools reopen: 'This is the new normal'

Plexiglas, sanitizer, fans, and both remote and outdoor learning now a regular part of school life as the first week gets underway

By Jim McGaw
Posted 9/16/20

PORTSMOUTH — So how do you hold a computer class outdoors? It’s simple, as long as students stay close enough to the school building.

“They need the WiFi,” said …

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Portsmouth schools reopen: 'This is the new normal'

Plexiglas, sanitizer, fans, and both remote and outdoor learning now a regular part of school life as the first week gets underway


PORTSMOUTH — So how do you hold a computer class outdoors? It’s simple, as long as students stay close enough to the school building.

“They need the WiFi,” said Michelle Michno, student support specialist at Portsmouth Middle School, where a group of fifth-graders were sitting on beach blankets or at picnic tables on a patch of grass along the building’s south side on Tuesday. They were spread at least six feet apart, and only two students at a time could sit at the tables.

“We’re trying to get them out as much as possible,” Ms. Michno said, noting that the middle school, like others in the district, are following a directive from the R.I. Department of Education (RIDE) to get flexible in finding safe ways to teach while a pandemic still rages across the country.

That’s only one of many precautions administrators and educators are taking to ensure student safety, of course. On Monday and Tuesday, we visited all four schools in the district to find out what they’re up to, what they’re doing to keep students safe, and how they imagine the next few weeks of the phased-in reopening will play out.

Elementary schools: Teaching the youngest how to play

Outdoor learning areas were tailor-made for pandemic 

Melville School was bustling with outdoor activity on its first day Monday. The school is notable for having not only a covered outdoor classroom that connects to the playground — complete with whiteboard and tables — but also a nearby “outdoor learning adventure zone” that was established when the school started up a rain garden several years ago.

First-year Principal Danielle Laurie may be undergoing a trial by fire, but she feels Melville has a leg up on many other schools when it comes to outdoor learning due to the facilities already in place.

“Every grade level, K through 4, has one, 20-minute recess, and everyone has a 20- to 30-minute outside instructional block. And that can be in our outdoor learning zone, or in our outdoor classroom,” she said, adding there’s additional space for outdoor learning elsewhere on the school grounds. “The teachers are encouraged to find any space they can to take students outside as much as possible.”

Melville and Hathaway started this week with kindergarten and Grade 1 students in person, with everyone else distance learning. It will be the same on Monday, but second-graders come in on Tuesday, and third-graders on Wednesday. By Thursday and Friday all students in K through 4 will be learning in person.

About 14 percent of students chose full distance learning at Melville, Ms. Laurie said. Slightly more Hathaway students are learning from home.

“Everything went pretty smoothly,” Ms. Laurie said of the first day at Melville. “We have to make some adjustments to our arrival routine — there was a little traffic buildup — but aside from that, it’s going really well.”

Nothing ever goes perfectly, of course. One kindergarten student, perhaps experiencing some first-day jitters, threw up in his face mask while he was outside near the playground. He remained calm, however, as he removed his mask and sat down on the grass away from other students, while Ms. Laurie summoned the school nurse and a custodian.

“It happens,” she said.

It didn’t phase any of the other students, who quickly returned to the jungle gym after being given a primer by lead kindergarten teacher Ashley Fallgren.

“We’re working on the ‘airplane’ arms — that’s what we tell them. Right now she’s teaching them how to play on our playground and stay socially distant,” the principal said. “We have a list of games you can play that don’t require students to share materials.”

Students can take a “mask break” after sitting down far enough away from other students, she said, and the school’s safety officer is always outside when students are. Indoors, both Melville and Hathaway have six-foot desks at which two students each can sit, separated by a pane of plexiglas. 

“I was so impressed with how many of them were wearing masks. We have the youngest kids right now, so I was fully expecting that this wouldn’t go super-well. I walked in every classroom and everyone is wearing their mask,” she said.

More cleaning

Cleanliness is a bigger priority than ever before.

“Really, a lot of the impact has been on using the bathrooms — ensuring there’s enough time and space to clean. We now have two custodians here during the day, and two at night to help with the cleaning,” Ms. Laurie said, noting there was typically only one custodian assigned during the day and night. “We’ve hired additional general school aides, to help separate kids during recess and lunch.”

In the cafeteria, blue dots mark where students should sit. Three classes at a time can be dismissed from the room. The dismissal area is also new, and no one is allowed to park in the school’s courtyard during that time, she said.

Ms. Laurie, who was appointed principal only a few weeks ago — succeeding Elizabeth Viveiros, now assistant superintendent — said she certainly didn’t expect to ever lead a school under such circumstances.

“I feel like my love of the school has really kept me going. I’ve been here since 2002 as a teacher and this was like my dream; I mentored under Liz Viveiros and I felt so excited. And then everything happened; Dr. (Thomas) Kenworthy is the pandemic superintendent. I feel like the knowledge I have of the school and the staff and the love I have of this community has really driven the work.”

At Hathaway, Principal Lisa Little said the plan to phase in students “is the best idea ever,” and she’s been impressed with how students are following safety precautions.

“They all keep their masks on,” she said. “I mean, every once in a while you have to say, ‘Oops, hold that up a little bit.’ They were so good during lunch. When they’re eating, they’re not supposed to be talking, because of germs. That’s hard, but they were great. When they’re done, they can put their mask on, and they can talk again. They’re social distancing in the hallways as they’re walking through or using the restrooms.”

Hathaway Habitat

Like at Melville, Hathaway also has a special learning zone. The Hathaway Habitat, located in the large field on the building’s east side, was unveiled last year. The area includes a garden and allows teachers to make connections to various subjects of learning.

Besides the Habitat, there are three large, numbered areas down the hill from the playground that teachers can sign up for. “One of them is a Maker Space area. We’ve got some tents on order, but they’re not in yet,” said Ms. Little.

There were third-grade teachers at the school on Monday, but they were there only to hand out distance learning materials to parents in the parking lot. 

“They put things together last week for the distance learning this week. Everybody’s got a different schedule,” she said.

Middle school: Learning safely while staying in your ‘pod’

Groups stay together all day, and teachers come to them 

At Portsmouth Middle School, students will see a lot of familiar faces every day thanks to the “pod” concept that was introduced this year.

“A pod is just a classroom that stays together all day,” said Ms. Michno. 

When they’re in class, a pod takes up half a learning center — they’re normally divided into quarters — to ensure social distancing. The various instructors come to them to teach, rather than students walking to an art class or science lab. Students must also eat in their classrooms, rather than in the cafeteria, and they’re also not allowed in the library for the time being.

“That was something we did to lessen the cross-contamination,” she said.

Each classroom pod has two fans to improve air circulation, and windows will be open as much as possible. Air purifiers were set up in faculty offices, since most don’t have windows, she added. 

Students also stay together whenever they go outside to learn, which is encouraged as much as possible. “We did a map of the whole perimeter of the building, and we designated an area for all teachers. They have their own spot to go,” said Ms. Michno, who guessed that outdoor learning could probably continue through October.

Teaching the fifth-grade computer class Tuesday, Monica Taft said she was somewhat concerned about whether the WiFi would be strong enough to make it outdoors, but the class went fine.

“These are fifth-graders, so they’re kind of used to technology,” Ms. Taft said. “They’re all really enjoying it. They were so excited. ‘We’re going outside?’ they said.”

The only problem with being outside on a sunny day? Some students were having trouble seeing their screens. However, a few or them fixed the problem by covering their laptops with beach towels and sticking their heads under.

“This is the new normal,” said Jillian Waugh, the school librarian who was acting as a co-teacher for the class.

No organized sports

During recess, which is required for grades 5 and 6, students must stay in their pods, and they can’t touch balls. “But we can try lacrosse, kickball jumprope or single-person activities,” Ms Michno said. “So things have changed a little bit; recess isn’t as fun as it could be because you have to stay 14 feet apart from each pod, and the kids have to remain six feet apart from themselves.”

There’s also no organized sports at the middle school, no after-school activities and no late buses. “These kids would be pumped — bringing in their stuff, getting gear for their sport. It’s pretty sad. Kids are upset about the sports. That’s huge,” she said.

High school: ‘Without the kids, the school feels empty and void’

Two cafeterias, difference entrances, more cleaning

Portsmouth High School Principal Joseph Amaral said it’s strange to be well into September with hardly any students in the building. 

“The kids are the heart of the school and without the kids, the school feels empty and void,” he said Tuesday morning. 

It’s been that way since March, when the school switched to full distance learning due to COVID-19. The administrative team never left, however.

“Without the students, without the teachers, it feels like you’re in Chernobyl. You see the building, you see the cars, but nobody’s around,” Mr. Amaral said.

Teachers were there, but they were hidden in their classrooms, connecting with students online. The only pupils at PHS this week are the handful enrolled in the Life Skills program. The others will start trickling in next week, based on their grade, their name’s place in the alphabet and schedule day. A similar plan is being used at the middle school.

“Only the freshmen come in next week. Monday is virtual for everyone, Tuesday is going to be the A-L freshman who will physically be here, M-Z freshmen are here on Wednesday,” Mr. Amaral said, adding that Tuesday and Wednesday are “Day A,” and Thursday and Friday are “Day B.”

“The third week is when we’re going to our full hybrid model. Monday is still virtual. And then, same scenario: Tuesday, Thursday for A through L, Wednesday Friday for M through Z.”

Mr. Amaral said PHS is prepared because the school has already proven it can do an exemplary job with distance learning, and that teachers have a good grasp on the technology. Unlike in the spring, however, there will be plenty of in-person learning as well.

“Some kids do better (with distance learning), and some kids do better in person. This hybrid model affords families the opportunity to do both,” he said. “I think we have more versatility than we every had before and it’s up to the students and their families to navigate which pathway’s best for them right now.”

Mr. Amaral said because of the splits and the fact that about 120 PHS students chose to learn remotely this quarter, there will be fewer than 400 students in the school at any one time, which allows for better social distancing and fewer pupils in each class. 

“Initially the director from the Department of Health said if we had masks we could have three-foot separation, so a three-foot bubble takes up a space of about 30 square feet,” he said.

Three weeks ago, however, the state health department and RIDE changed the minimum from three feet to six feet. “So that went from an approximately 30-square-foot bubble to a 120-square-foot bubble, which means each kid has a larger footprint. We couldn’t bring in just 9th and 11th grade; we wanted to keep the grades together, so we had to break that up by letter combinations.”

As for other changes being made to ensure proper spacing, one-ways will be instituted throughout the building to “minimize conflict” in the hallways, and the school will have a second cafeteria — the old gym. Students will also enter and exit the building from the “horseshoe” outside the old gym as well as the field house and the main cafeteria.

Only one person at a time will be able to use a bathroom, and an extra custodian has been hired to help with cleaning. “Typically we don’t clean every lavatory every period, but we are during this process. Basically, every hour, every bathroom will be cleaned,” said Mr. Amaral, adding that while the “E” wing student lavatory hasn’t been used much in the past, it will now that the old gym is being used as a cafeteria.

The school has also made the nurse assistant a full-time position, rather than part time.

No football

As most of the school community knows by now, the R.I. Interscholastic League (RIIL) recently ruled there will be no high school football this fall. While many students are understandably upset about that, Mr Amaral said things could be worse.

“At least they’re giving kids an opportunity to participate in some fashion, unlike some other states, where they just canceled sports altogether,” he said. “So, I have to give (RIIL Director) Mike Lunney a lot of credit for trying to be creative — knowing that sports is a way that helps kids stay focused in school, but to do it safely.”

Shannon Sullivan, the senior class advisor, said making sure there are fun and meaningful activities for students this year is key. “We’re just trying to do whatever we can to come up with creative ideas for the kids to have a good, fun and fulfilling senior year. Things like a drive-in event where they can be together — a drive-in movie, or a drive-in something,” she said. 

For Mr. Amaral, he’s looking forward to getting his students back in the building. 

“It changes the energy and dynamics in how we operate. We are a people business, Without the people, it becomes much more difficult to communicate and understand where they’re coming from,” he said.

“We really appreciate the support of parents and students to understand the position we’re in, but I also want to give a shoutout to our new superintendent (Thomas Kenworthy) and very new assistant superintendent (Elizabeth Viveiros) who are trying to navigate a very difficult situation in a community that’s very proud of its schools.

“The only thing we need now are the students.”

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Meet our staff
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.