WESTERLY —Everything from disinfecting robots to touch-free bathroom appliances are under consideration for whenever public schools are allowed to reopen in the age of COVID-19. While it is unclear whether restrictions put in place to slow the spread of the virus will be lifted or modified to allow public schools in the state to open in the fall, local officials are making plans just in case.
The school district's director of buildings and maintenance, John Pagano, reviewed potential steps that are under consideration for when schools reopen Wednesday during a virtual School Committee meeting. The steps all involve an intensified emphasis on making sure the school buildings are healthy and clean environments.
Pagano who works for Aramark Corp., with which the school contracts for facilities management, said the company has developed "a robust process for opening sites." The company has contracts with other school districts and colleges throughout the country.
Touch-free sinks and other restroom appliances are under consideration. Pagano said it is important to develop a plan because there will likely be a rush for soap dispensers and other similar equipment. Also under consideration are robots that disinfect using UV light, he said.
The district may also reconsider how custodial staff members are deployed. For instance, Pagano said, one individual might be assigned new disinfecting duties.
School Committee Chairwoman Christine Cooke praised Pagano for early planning.
"A lot of people are like a deer in the headlights, they don't know what to do," Cooke said. "I'm glad you're ahead of the curve."
Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau said officials have been working with school nurses and the physician the district works with to develop a plan and review personal protective equipment needs.
Superintendents throughout the state are considering having school districts join together to purchase the items in bulk, Garceau said, adding that officials are concerned the cost of the equipment will spike as demand increases.
Officials are also looking at potential changes that might be necessary such as staggered school start times and double sessions. The effects of social-distancing requirements on staffing levels is also being studied, Garceau said.
"It's quite a challenge and it's going to be a challenge. All superintendents in the state are looking at it," Garceau said.
In related news, Garceau said, officials have worked hard to develop a graduation ceremony that honors Westerly High Schools seniors and also keeps the students, their families, and school staff safe.
"We realize that people are disappointed and we are certainly empathetic to the fact that we are not able to have the traditional graduation on Augeri Field," Garceau said.
To comply with guidelines issued by the state health and education departments and Gov. Gina Raimondo, school officials have developed a watch party ceremony scheduled for June 11 at 9 p.m. at the drive-in movie location on Atlantic Avenue in Misquamicut. Students and their families will have an opportunity to watch a graduation video from their vehicles. The video will also be live-streamed, allowing families and students to watch from home.
School Committee member Diane Chiaradio Bowdy said she had received e-mails from several families and students asking why the traditional ceremony could not go forward.
"The message is that we had all hoped that by now things would be different, bit unfortunately they are not … this is not something we can take lightly," Bowdy said.
William Nardone, the School Committee's lawyer, explained why conducting a traditional in-person ceremony is not advisable, even if participants signed a waiver. A waiver would not free the school district or individual School Committee members from personal liability because the district has received clear guidance that state officials have called for a prohibition on in-person ceremonies this spring.
Further, Nardone said, the district's insurer would likely deny potential claims arising from an in-person ceremony because of knowing and willful rejection of the state guidance.