Bristol Warren district changes reopening plans for two schools

Colt Andrews students will start school at home, while Mt. Hope takes a step back

By Scott Pickering
Posted 9/10/20

Bristol’s Colt Andrews Elementary School will open on Monday with no students in the buildings, and Mt. Hope High School students have lost 50 percent of their in-person classroom time for the …

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Bristol Warren district changes reopening plans for two schools

Colt Andrews students will start school at home, while Mt. Hope takes a step back

Posted

Bristol’s Colt Andrews Elementary School will open on Monday with no students in the buildings, and Mt. Hope High School students have lost 50 percent of their in-person classroom time for the foreseeable future. Both of those significant changes to the Bristol Warren Regional School District reopening plan were approved by a unanimous vote of the school committee late Wednesday night.

After yet another marathon meeting, the committee voted to approve Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jonathan Brice’s two recommendations to alter the district’s original reopening plans, which were approved just a week ago by a split 5-3 vote of this same body.

Because of a Colt Andrews staffing shortage triggered by a positive Covid-19 case and mandatory quarantine for a group of staff members, the superintendent recommended that the K to 5 elementary school open on Monday, Sept. 14, with all students in a distance-learning format — meaning they will log in from home to meet their new teachers. They plan to keep the school in that full distance-learning format for the first week of the year, before bringing everyone (students, teachers, staff and quarantining teachers) back into the buildings Monday, Sept. 21.

The clock is ticking to execute the new Colt Andrews plan efficiently. Parents should be getting notification on Thursday, which will include instructions about picking up Chromebooks for all students on Friday. The district is hoping to get all those laptops distributed prior to the opening on Monday.

All other elementary schools in the district, specifically Guiteras, Rockwell and Hugh Cole, along with Kickemuit Middle School, will be opening on Monday as originally planned. The elementary schools will have all students — aside from the roughly 27 percent of families who chose to keep their children home this semester — in the buildings, and the middle school will operate at 50 percent capacity, with students spending two days a week at home and two days at school, with everyone home on Mondays.

Mt. Hope takes a step back

The situation at the high school is different. Numerous times throughout the night, Dr. Brice told school committee members and the public that state guidelines are forcing them to cut down the number of students attending classes inside Mt. Hope High School.

Dr. Brice said the state’s facilities guidelines, which were released Aug. 24, require that in schools where there are no stable groups — such as the high school — students must remain at least six feet apart at all times.

“This is a game-changer,” Dr. Brice said.

He said they’ve gone back and re-measured the classrooms and determined they cannot accommodate all the students who would be in the building at the same time under their original plan. That plan, known as the “hybrid model,” originally called for half the student body to be at home and half in the building at any one time.

The district’s new plan is known as the “limited” model. Students will all be home for “virtual” days on Mondays, and then 25 percent of the students will come to school every other day of the week. Thus, students who chose to attend classes in person will be in the classrooms one day per week and home three days per week.

Dr. Brice said they do not make this decision lightly, and their goal is to get as many students back safely into buildings as they possibly can. He said this model will be regularly evaluated, however, he made it clear that until state guidelines change, it is unlikely Mt. Hope will change.

A teacher shortage

Another factor influencing the district’s predicament is a significant departure of teachers and teaching assistants. Dr. Brice said 15 employees have either retired or taken leaves of absence in the past two weeks. The district is scrambling to replace them.

“That is the type of churn that makes it really difficult to staff-up when we open,” Dr. Brice said.

Dr. Brice said they’ve been screening and interviewing candidates all day, every day, and the work continues as the clock ticks toward Monday.

The superintendent also said this unprecedented era has brought an additional staffing challenge. Because roughly 850 students will be exclusively learning from home, the district is trying to ramp up a whole new system.

“Distance learning is, in effect, setting up a new school system. That’s what it is,” Dr. Brice said. The distance-only students will be taught by distance-only teachers, many of them new hires. As of Wednesday night, administrators were still looking for three of them.

Teachers object to reopening

The meeting also included two periods of lengthy public comment. Repeating a familiar theme from previous meetings, some teachers, like union co-president Michelle Way-DaSilva and Mary Arsenault, urged the school committee to keep the buildings closed and have everyone learn from home, as did some parents.

Other parents were frustrated to learn about the reduction in classroom time at Mt. Hope. Erin Kopecky demanded that someone be held accountable for the situation and the building not being ready. “All I hear from you, Dr. Brice, is excuses, excuses, excuses, and that is very disheartening,” Ms. Kopecky said.

Holly Dadilveira, a teacher in another district who is going back to her building to teach five days a week, expressed frustration with the steps backwards in her home district. “It’s frustrating to me as a parent and teacher,” she said. “Why was Bristol Warren not prepared and not ready?”

Shortly before calling the issue to a vote, Ms. Schofield said they understand the impact of their decision. “We know that no decision we make is going to be the right decision for everybody … We are doing our best,” she said.

The full nine-member board voted unanimously to implement the changes to the schedule at Colt Andrews and Mt. Hope.

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