WESTERLY — Staggered opening of the town's schools would begin on Sept. 14 and continue for one week, after which the district will move into a mixture of in-person and distance learning with pre-K and elementary school children spending the most time in a traditional classroom setting, under a plan released Wednesday.
Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau presented his plan for reopening the schools during a School Committee meeting at Westerly High School. The plan, which Garceau was continuing to discuss with the committee at deadline Wednesday night, is intended to cover only a preliminary reopening period that will be followed by increased in-person learning starting in late October.
"I thinks it makes sense and is safe as can be, and I think it will get us to a full opening," Garceau said.
Parts of the plan are driven by concerns the district will not have enough bus drivers, teachers, and other staff, Garceau said. Many district bus drivers have resigned recently, saying they did not want to risk contracting the COVID-19 virus. Transportation is also a challenge for districts throughout the state because federal guidelines call for one child per bus bench unless the children are siblings.
All students will have the ability to opt for all distance learning rather than the hybrid approach outlined in Garceau's plan. In-person learning will start incrementally at all schools and for students at all levels to allow for adjustments of schedules, protocols and procedures.
It was only the third time since March, when Gov. Gina Raimondo ordered schools in the state to close as a means to slow the spread of the virus, that the committee met in person. On Monday, Raimondo announced that she expected all school districts except for Providence and Central Falls to open for in-person learning.
Under Garceau's plan, students in grades pre-K through 4 will attend school for in-person learning on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Students in all grades will distance learn on Wednesdays, when schools will undergo what Garceau called a "deep cleaning." The distance-learning day will also give students and staff a break from having to wear face masks all day while in school, he said.
Students in Grades 5-12 will have in-person learning two days per week and distance learning on Wednesday and two other days. The in-person and distance learning days will be determined alphabetically by students' last names.
Students in the district's Transition Academy, which serves young adults with special needs from 18-22, will start the year with a mix of distance learning and in-person instruction. The in-person instruction will be at Babcock Hall initially and will move to the lower level of the town-owned PACE Adult Day Center building on Union Street (the former police station) once space there is prepared for the students.
The first week of the new school year will involve a staggered opening similar to the one that has been used at the elementary school level for years, Garceau said. Orientation for pre-K children will occur during the week of Sept. 14. Differently-abled pre-K children will start in-person instruction during the week of Sept. 21, and they will be joined by their peers during the week of Sept. 28.
Orientation for kindergarten students will occur during the week of Sept. 14. First- and second-grade students will start in-person learning on Sept. 14 and 15. Students in Grades 1-4 will all have in-person learning on Sept. 17 and 18, less kindergarten students. In-person learning for all elementary school students will start Sept. 21.
Staggered openings will also occur at Westerly Middle School and Westerly High School.
In addition to a potential shortage of bus drivers and substitute drivers, Garceau and his staff are balancing the need to have enough teachers in buildings while also covering distance-learning needs. The district is also hoping to hire nine additional custodians and is looking for substitute custodians. Additional substitute teachers are also needed.
The district currently has a 30-day supply of personal protective equipment, and the plan notes that Raimondo has pledged the state will help districts that need more equipment.
The need to assign some teachers to strictly distance-learning assignments could eventually cause class sizes to increase for some in-person learning including at Westerly Middle School, where only four feet of social distance would be possible rather than the six-foot distance under widely accepted social distance recommendations.
Garceau thanked and praised his administration and leadership of the local teachers' union for their role in developing the plan, which state officials have cited as a model for the state.
"I desperately want to be open … and our teachers want that to happen, but it has to happen in a way that is safe, otherwise it won't happen," Garceau said.
A team of state officials inspected the district's schools on Wednesday. Garceau said the inspectors were mostly complimentary of the district's preparations and made a few recommendations on potential methods to improve air circulation.
While Garceau said he believes the district's schools will be safe, he also offered words of caution, saying members of the school community will likely contract the virus at some point.
"It's all about doing the best you can to mitigate risk," Garceau said.