standing Westerly school bus

WESTERLY — The town's public school students will become "distance learners" for at least two weeks starting Monday following an announcement from Gov. Gina Raimondo.

On Wednesday the governor announced that public school buildings that were closed following the end of the school day Friday would remain shuttered because of the the coronavirus threat and distance learning would be employed for two weeks. The current week is being considered school vacation. After two weeks, Raimondo said that officials will "evaluate how it's going and make a decision at that point as to what we will do for the remainder of the school year."

"This is  a tough decision and this will be tough to execute. Many other states have just thrown in the towel. They have said no more school for the rest of the school year but I am not yet willing to throw in the towel because I think that some learning is better than no learning," Raimondo said during a news conference at the Statehouse in Providence.

School officials in Westerly have been developing distance learning plans for several days, anticipating the possibility that school buildings would have to be closed as a means to limit spread of the virus. "We had been planning for this and thought it might well come to this so it wasn't a surprise to hear the governor's announcement," Westerly Superintendent Mark Garceau said Wednesday.

Districts throughout the state were required to submit distance learning plans to the Rhode Island Department of Education by today. Westerly's was submitted Wednesday afternoon. The plan sets out to provide students with learning "that is as normal as it can be, but it's obviously a brand new paradigm," Garceau said.

The plan covers all of the subjects that students encounter during a normal school day and accounts for non-screen time, lunch, outdoor time and physical exercise. Teachers and administrators are continuing to devise a method for taking attendance as well as delivering services to students who normally receive assistance from nurses, social workers and other aides. RIDE has assigned liaisons to regions of the state to assist districts with delivery of distance learning, Garceau said.

Some of the Westerly High School classes will be conducted in real time with teachers and students participating in a "virtual classroom."

Michael Sujka, the district's  technology director, is working with teachers to assist with planning, and teachers with more technological experience are assisting their less experienced colleagues, Garceau said.

Parents and guardians will soon receive information from the district explaining the distance learning plans.

State Street Elementary School Principal Audrey Faubert and the district's other principals are working with teachers on lesson planning and how to communicate with students during the distance learning period. The work will be based on online platforms that teachers and students are familiar with from their regular school days.

The first week is likely to be informal as teachers develop strategies for engaging students. Part of the early effort will include determining which students have internet access and which ones do not. While some students left school on Friday with textbooks they will need, the district is looking into ways to provide material to students who did not leave with books. "We want children to be using things they are familiar with," Faubert said.

Raimondo, in announcing the distance learning initiative, emphasized the need for students, their families and teachers to work together. Faubert said she was struck by the governor's tone.

"I'm thinking a lot about the words of the governor. We're all going to be trying to learn and teach. I'm sure there will be a lot of adjustments as we go and we'll do the best we can," Faubert said.

The prospect of the virus affecting an even more substantial period of time has Garceau thinking about ways to deal with the experience of Westerly High School juniors and seniors who are looking forward to proms and other annual milestones. "Those are important events to our kids so we've got to figure out a way to address it," he said.

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