WESTERLY — When students arrive to their schools on Monday, they will be starting an academic year unlike any other. Health checks, face masks and social distancing will be the order of every day for the foreseeable future as the world continues to reel from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But district principals say they are feeling the same excitement they do every year, and they sense their students are eager to return to school as well.
"In some ways this year will be no different than any other year. Parents can expect to see the same strong relationships between students and teachers. ... Kids are always excited about learning, and our job is always to make that the focus and make it through the year together, even given this unusual circumstance," said Springbrook Elementary School Principal Susan Martin.
While school employees worked on developing reopening plans that prioritize safety and mitigating risk, they were also thinking about teaching and learning. On Friday, the district's teachers participated in a professional development day centered on language arts and mathematics.
The district's custodial staff worked all summer to ensure optimal air quality in schools, and Martin said she believes teachers' resilient and flexible nature will position them well to help keep students safe by following social distancing guidelines and other safe practices.
"The staff is on board with making sure we are setting a good example," Martin said.
In addition to recess, Martin said, as many activities as possible will be conducted outdoors when weather permits. Students in the district's elementary schools and at Westerly Middle School will work in stable groups or pods, a practice recommended for slowing the spread of the virus.
Students and staff will be expected to wear masks throughout each school day.
"I have a lot of faith in kids. I think they can do it, and for a lot of families wearing a mask is getting to be routine," Martin said. "I'm convinced it's going to be a great year. It might be different than other years, but we are still going to have fun and want to make sure this is a wonderful year of learning."
A staggered opening will be used in the first week to allow teachers and staff time to respond to unforeseen challenges and adjust protocols and procedures as necessary. In subsequent weeks, a mixture of in-person and remote, virtual learning will be employed. Wednesdays will be distance-learning days in all schools, allowing for deep cleanings of the buildings and a break from all-day mask wearing.
In late October, Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau said, the hope is to increase in-person learning. A priority in the early going of the new school year will involve assessing students for learning loss that may have occurred as a result of distance learning last winter and spring. The assessment will involve both academics and social and emotional learning.
The reopening plan also includes efforts to reduce sharing of materials in classrooms. Additionally, students will either pick up or receive their meals on carts and eat them in their classrooms rather than in large groups in school cafeterias. Each school has been stocked with disinfectant, hand sanitizing stations, face masks and cleaning supplies. Social distancing markers have been placed on floors, and signs encourage best practices.
While the district will be highly focused on mitigating risk for students and staff, Garceau said, the plan can only go so far. He pointed to preseason conditioning drills this summer that saw two Westerly High School football players test positive for the virus just days into the workouts.
"I think people have to recognize there is no such thing as a risk-free environment, but we've done everything we can to make sure the buildings are clean and will do everything we can to keep it that way," Garceau said.
While some are opting to keep their children home for distance learning only, Garceau said, several families that initially said they were not comfortable with in-person learning have asked if they could send their children to school after the district's reopening plan was announced about two weeks ago. The district will accommodate those requests as soon as possible, Garceau said.
Dunn's Corners Elementary School Principal Steven Morrone said teachers will check in with their students in the early days of the new school year to gauge their comfort level.
"We're definitely highly focused on social and emotional learning. We want to be sure they feel safe and are happy to be in school and create relationships with the kids," Morrone said.
Teachers will also assess students' reading and mathematics ability.
"Our expectations for learning are the same as they were pre-COVID. We'll assess their entry points, that way we can intervene when necessary, especially since we haven't been in school since March when distance learning started," Morrone said.
Morrone praised the work of his teachers and school staff.
"I'm super thrilled about how the staff came together here to prepare," he said.
Receiving positive comments from a team of state inspectors confirmed, Morrone said, his belief that the school and district are on the right track for reopening.
"We're ready for the kids and can't wait. It's been a long time coming," Morrone said.