standing Westerly High School

Sun file photo

Well, the days are getting shorter, the nights and mornings cooler, and soon we’ll all be thinking (and humming) that “all the leaves are brown and the sky is gray,” but Bulldog Nation remains alive and well, thriving, and continuing to work through and overcoming the challenges of what everyone hopes is the final stretch of this pandemic. All along, our district has done what it can to ensure that its schools are as fully and safely open as they can be. Your teachers, support staff and building leaders have all gone above and beyond to ensure that our students keep growing, learning, and feeling supported in their social and emotional development during these unprecedented times.

And while we can disagree about the guidance, recommendations and mandates that come to us from various agencies with respect how we avoid contributing to virus spread in our buildings, we have taken steps recently to also do what we can to avoid sending healthy students and staff to quarantine. To this end, the district has recently modified quarantine protocols where possible (think “RIDOH recommendations vs executive orders”) to minimize the numbers of individuals needing to quarantine because of close contact exposure to a COVID-positive individual. Close contacts are not COVID-positive and thus far very few of the many students (especially as compared to the small number of positive cases we have had) who we send to quarantine subsequently end up testing positive for COVID. What does happen is that schools are currently (by mandate) sending out healthy students who remain healthy, but who miss significant class time.

It is for this reason that the district has adopted the minimum seven-day quarantine protocols, has discontinued the previously recommended protocol of sending siblings of close contacts home from school, pulled back on the numbers (based on seating proximity) of students quarantined due to possible exposure on school buses and petitioned the governor to allow Westerly to pilot a “Test and Stay” protocol as is in place in other communities across the country.

Gov. McKee was receptive to taking my phone call on a recent Saturday, listened well to the realities of what our students, staff and families are contending with and our concerns about the effects of lost school time, both academically and in terms of the social-emotional wellness of our students. He soon agreed to allow this pilot to go forward and while details are being worked out with the Rhode Island Department of Health, we hope to see Test and Stay up and running here very soon. Test and Stay will mean that a student who would otherwise go to quarantine per the governor’s executive order would instead be allowed to continue to attend school provided that they also continue to test negative for COVID-19.

Additionally, using grant funding, the district is also launching a COVID testing program which will provide for any students and/or staff who feel the need to be tested on any given morning before reporting to school or work to get that test in-district at a centralized location.

Finally, on the COVID front, vaccination clinics for children aged 5-11 are currently being scheduled locally, and two dates that have been tentatively identified (pending anticipated approvals) for these clinics are Tuesday, Nov. 16, and Tuesday, Dec. 7.

Obviously, all of what is being described here is about doing what we can to ensure that sick individuals are not coming into our buildings, but also that we are likewise doing all we can to avoid sending any more students or staff to quarantine than we absolutely need to.

This month, we were all very happy to see both Westerly Middle School and State Street Elementary School recognized (for the first time) by U.S. News and World Report as being among the top-performing schools in the state. Westerly High School continues to likewise be recognized by U.S. News as a high-performing high school. These recognitions are testament to the hard work and commitment to academic excellence of our teaching and support staffs districtwide, their principals and of course, our students and their families.

The district’s Building Subcommittee continues to examine and deliberate potential options for building projects, grade reconfigurations and other logistical considerations related to addressing the need to invest in our school facilities. Two recent engagement sessions resulted in productive discussions and hopefully helped to answer the questions of attendees. The next two such sessions are scheduled for next month (Thursday, Nov. 19, online at 6 p.m. and Saturday, Nov. 21, face-to-face, at 10 a.m. at Westerly Middle School). We hope that all interested parties will consider attending, engaging in the discussions and contributing to this important work.

Mark Garceau is the superintendent of schools in Westerly.

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