WOOD RIVER JCT. — The restrictions and closures posed by the coronavirus pandemic are forcing towns and the Chariho School Committee to find ways to meet their statutory obligations to hold public meetings without members of the public physically present.
Convening for the first time using a new, remote meeting platform, members of the Chariho School Committee adopted the district's 2020-21 school budget on Tuesday. The committee also approved a virtual learning program, as mandated by the Rhode Island Department of Education during the current school closures.
The vote to adopt the budget was unanimous. Of the 12 committee members, six attended the meeting in person and four participated in the virtual format. Two members were absent.
Members of the public were encouraged to participate in the meeting using the remote platform and instructions on how to listen and call in were posted on the Chariho website.
“There were a few on,” said Jane Daly, interim superintendent. “I want to say up to 20. There were a few people listening.”
Committee chairman Ryan Callahan said the new meeting format was not without its challenges.
“I think it was a little bit of a mixed bag,” he said, explaining that the setup worked very well for School Committee members once they had identified its shortcomings, and the shortcomings had to do with the audio for people who were online. "You can’t have multiple laptops side by side with microphones active, because then you get a feedback loop. So we were only using one mic. So for those near the mic, such as Jane and myself, the committee members could hear adequately, but for members further away, those online couldn’t hear very well, and so I had to repeat questions and also summarize comments.”
Voters in the three towns will decide on the spending plan in a budget referendum set for April 14. On March 10, the committee approved a final reduction of the budget by reducing the district's surplus, or fund balance, from its current level of 2.8% to 2%. The reduction lowered the total proposed budget by an additional $459,000 to $53.5 million, representing a 1.9% increase over the current spending plan. The contributions of the towns will now be .06% less than last year for Charlestown, an increase of 1.38% for Richmond and a 3.9% increase for Hopkinton.
With students facing at least two more weeks without classroom instruction, Gov. Gina Raimondo said at her Wednesday press briefing that she was determined to launch a statewide virtual learning program beginning next Monday.
The program, she noted, will be the first of its kind in the country. While conceding that virtual instruction is uncharted territory, the governor vowed to forge ahead.
“I’m not yet willing to throw in the towel, because I think some learning is better than no learning and I want to respect our teachers as well as our principals who are urging, ‘Let’s go ahead and try this,’” she said. "I’m not going to sugarcoat it. This is different. It’s never been done before in America, not just anywhere in Rhode Island, but think we’re ready to do it.”
The Chariho district submitted its 26-page “virtual instructional plan” to the Rhode Island Department of Education on Wednesday morning. The deadline for all school districts to submit their plans is Thursday, and the initiative is all the more urgent with the announcement that schools throughout the state will remain closed for another two weeks, and probably longer.
Chariho has already surveyed families to determine whether some might need assistance with internet connectivity or laptop computers. All Chariho students in Grades 5 to 12 have been issued laptop computers and students in Grades 2 to 4 are on a 2 to 1 program, in which two students share a single laptop. Daly said it was important for the district to ascertain which families might need help in order to participate in the virtual instructional program.
“As part of our survey that we did earlier this week, we worked to identify if there are families that need to borrow a device for Grades 2 through 4, if we were to enact virtual instructional learning,” she said. “We got a sense of the number and it’s not a large number. I think the latest is that we have under 100 [families] that would need to borrow … We have a very strong indication that we would have enough laptops to be able to have families borrow.”
The Chariho plan, Daly said, was the product of intensive collaboration among teachers, administrators, union leaders and the district’s two technology fellows.
Officials at RIDE will evaluate all the virtual instructional plans and provide feedback. As of midday Wednesday, about half of the state's school districts had submitted their plans.
Rhode Island Commissioner of Education Angélica Infante-Green, who attended the Wednesday briefing, said RIDE would share the best virtual instructional plans with school districts that needed them.
“We are also sharing plans that we think are strong plans, so they can use those as models,” she said.
Asked whether she believed educators would be ready for the Monday launch, Infante-Green said her department would support the districts as much as possible.
“We’re here to support,” she said. “This is the first time that we’re doing this. I’m sure that there will be areas that we will improve upon, but we’re a team. We’re getting this done together."