WOOD RIVER JCT. — With only a week remaining before Rhode Island schools reopen, Gov. Gina Raimondo issued a clear mandate Monday for in-person learning. The Chariho School District is preparing for returning students while also accommodating families whose children will continue to learn from home.

The governor has said that while she understands parents’ and teachers’ anxiety over possible COVID-19 outbreaks, it is important to get children back into classrooms.

Raimondo announced that she expected children back at school beginning Sept. 14 and, at the latest, Oct. 13. Some districts, she noted, will need more time to reopen in phases.

“It’s going to take some time,” she said. “There’ll be staggered starts. Some kids might go in for the first seven days and then do distance learning for seven days … we think it’s going to take about a month, between September 14 and October 13, before we get everybody back in school, in person, every day.”

Districtwide, most of Chariho's 3,200 students will be returning to the classrooms, with between 20% and 30% distance learning.

Chariho Superintendent Gina Picard said schools have been preparing all summer for the majority of students to return to in-person learning and that Gov. Raimondo had been clear that the plan had always been to get students back to school.

“Definitely, in all her messaging, it felt as though she was confident, so we were moving forward with the understanding that there would be no surprises and we would open with the plan that she puts forth,”  she said.

For middle school students, the return to class will be staggered throughout the month of September. If that goes well, Picard said all students who have opted for in-person learning should be back at school five days a week by Sept. 28. 

At the high school, Principal Craig MacKenzie said that so far, 870 students were planning to be in the building and 300 had opted for distance learning.

Classrooms have been modified and hallways will be one-way.

“We’ve got a great flow plan where people are never crossing paths,” he said. “It’s one-directional around our building, and that includes some exterior passing areas so the kids and adults can get little mask breaks here and there.”

The idea of maintaining stable groups, or pods of students, isn't workable at the high school, so a committee of administrators, teachers and students had to come up with other mitigation strategies.

“That was one of our first brainstorms,” MacKenzie said. “How can we move about the building without ever crossing paths? We feel like we came up with a good plan. We’ve got a visual and we’ve got some explanations for students and faculty to help them understand why we’re doing that. I think it’s reasonable and it’s effective as well.”

The high school will begin the school year with students in class 50% of the time. All students will be distance learning on Mondays, students with names beginning with the letters A to J will come to school on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and students with names beginning with the letters K to Z will attend on Thursdays and Fridays.

School buses will drop off at different locations on the campus to prevent crowds of students from forming.

“Some of the buses are going to be dropping off at the back of the middle school to distribute the students so that they’re entering the building from various areas and not all congregating in one specific area,” MacKenzie said.

Richmond police Lt. John Arnold said police were concerned about congestion during student drop-off and dismissal times.

“I have a feeling that a lot of parents are going to opt out of the bus, so one of my concerns is how many parents are going to be driving their kids to school,” he said. “What is the volume of traffic going to look like? … Hopkinton police normally send officers in the morning as a police presence. We’ll have additional officers in the area of Chariho and Richmond elementary for drop-off periods to see how this is working out, review what’s taking place, and if we see something that needs to be changed, we’ll get together with the administration.”

Middle school Principal Gregory Zenion said about 650 students were returning to in-person learning and 320 would be distance learning. 

“I feel like the governor gave us the green light yesterday to open for all, so that’s what we’re going to try to do,” he said.

Unlike the high school, middle school students will be in stable pods of up to 18.

“What will be hard is they will be with the same 15 to 18 kids all day and the teachers will come in,” he said. “We’re now in the process of looking at outdoor spaces, and we have three designated areas we can use.”

Having some students in class and others at home will be challenging for teachers.

“It’s a heavy lift,” Zenion said. “It’s not going to be easy. I think they’re aware of that. I think all of the teachers are up to the challenge. I think we have teachers that are looking forward to coming back in person and feel they need to be in the building and we have teachers that are afraid.”

At Hope Valley Elementary School, the PTO has donated $1,900 for the purchase of a large tent to serve as an outdoor classroom. Principal Giuseppe Gencarelli said the school would be exploring additional innovations.

“Our PTO also purchased some milk crates and the milk crates are going to be designed to put student materials in, like their lunches, their backpacks, things like that, instead of using the cubby areas, to keep everything isolated,” he said. “So, when it’s time to go outside to use the tent, one idea is the kids can use the milk crates, flip them upside down, and take the crate outside to sit on.”

In order to prevent congestion during dismissal, Gencarelli said students will be boarding buses at a different location.

“The plan is for buses to pick up on Locustville Road, so students will have to be escorted down towards Langworthy Field, follow the pathway, being socially distant, and we do one bus at a time,” he said.

For some parents, health issues make it too risky to send their children back to school. Hopkinton School Committee member Catherine Giusti said the presence of an elderly relative at home had led her children to opt for distance learning.

“They are worried about bringing the virus home to my mother-in-law, who lives with us,” she said. “Their other concern was, they were worried that the school year was going to look so different to start anyway that they already understand how distance learning works and they wanted to start with that.”

Richmond parent Robin Woodmansee also chose distance learning for her two children. 

“I think every family is in a different situation,” she said. “I think the families have been great about being non-judgmental …. Everyone is being as positive as we can, but this situation is very fluid.”

Picard said she understood how difficult it was for families to decide whether to send their children back to school.

“I have respect for all their decisions, because I don’t think this is easy either way,” she said. “They’re hoping that they’re making the right decisions based on their own family situation. That’s the best that they can do, and it’s our responsibility to ensure that the protocols and the safety measures that are in place make sense, are workable, and that we follow all the protocols.”

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