WESTERLY — As school administrators continue work on a plan for reopening schools at the end of August, officials have launched a public outreach effort to keep students and their families informed on measures taken to protect against the spread of COVID-19.
“I want to develop a weekly pattern of sending information out by email or Facebook to help people understand the vocabulary,” Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau said Monday.
On Friday, Garceau had posted an introduction to reopening announcement in which he explained that four plans are under development: full return, a limited in-person learning plan, a partial in-person learning plan, and a complete distance learning plan. Variables effecting which plan ultimately goes into effect will depend on the course of the virus and the opinion of scientific experts, Garceau said.
All public districts in the state are required to submit reopening plans to the state Department of Education by Friday. Local officials expect to hear back from the department by the end of the month, which will leave about one month before Aug. 31, which Gov. Gina Raimondo has established as the first day of school for all districts in the state.
To provide for social distancing, Garceau said officials are looking at ways to keep particular groups of students together in “stable groups” or pods. Another consideration is staggered entry times and providing groups of students their own entrance and exit points when possible.
“While we may all be wearing face coverings and being mindful of being in crowds lately, around our families or others with whom we are in regular contact and who we know are well, we are much more comfortable, and we are far less likely to contract or spread the virus. The thinking behind stable groups of a teacher (or a small group of adults) interacting primarily (or only) with the same group of students, is much the same,” Garceau said in his Facebook post.
The stable group concept will be much more difficult at Westerly High School where students naturally move throughout the school’s two buildings.
“The more we are unable to create stable groups, the more we have to plan for other safety measures such as requiring face coverings, cleaning and sanitization, etc. Our planning has to account for all of this,” Garceau said.
The district’s older students might be asked to wipe down their desks at the end each class and students entering the class might be asked to do the same when they arrive to a classroom to help ensure a cleaner environment, Gacreau said.
In the case of younger students who should not handle strong cleaning agents, teachers and other staff will likely be asked to take on some of the cleaning duties, Garceau said.
Transportation presents a particular challenge, Garceau said. The district recently asked parents to state whether they planned to have their children use the district’s school busies or whether they planned to bring their children to school or make other arrangements. About 1,100 families, or roughly half the regular number, said they planned to use buses, Garceau said.
“Transportation is a major challenge for all districts in the state,” Garceau said.
District officials are awaiting the results of a survey of teachers. The survey is intended to gauge teachers’ comfort level with returning to in-person learning.
“I think, generally, teachers want to be back but it has to be done safely,” Garceau said. Garceau said he is confident schools will only reopen if it is safe to do so. He stressed the importance of in-person learning.
“As much success as we had with distance learning and I think we had at least as much if not more success than any district in the state, it’s not the same. You can’t cover the content in depth or develop the relationships or maintain and monitor social-emotional changes in the students,” he said.
Distance learning also robs students of social development and aspects of the academic experience, Garceau said. “Learning is a social activity,” Garceau said.