PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A growing number of Rhode Island school districts are proposing a combination of in-person and distance learning when school starts in August, as plans begin to take shape for educating kids in the age of COVID-19.

Districts were required to submit their draft plans to the Rhode Island Department of Education by Friday. RIDE declined to make the draft plans public, as the agency provides feedback for districts to make changes. The final plans will be made public by the end of the month.

RIDE told districts to submit plans for three scenarios: full in-person, partial or limited in-person and full distance learning.

But a number of districts have already said they are planning for the partial model, and will likely not be bringing 100% of students back in person five days a week.

Nine such districts — Cranston, Warwick, West Warwick, Pawtucket, Johnston, Woonsocket, North Providence, Lincoln and Coventry – signed onto a joint cover letter for the plans they submitted to RIDE Friday, after joining ranks to coordinate hybrid plans that would keep schools at 50% capacity. (The schools’ teachers are all represented by the American Federal of Teachers, which also signed on to the letter.)

“We are looking at a hybrid model,” said Cranston Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse. “The population in the schools, on buses … would be halved.”

She said the current thinking in Cranston is to have one cohort of students attend school on Tuesdays and Thursdays while the other half learns from home, and then swapping on Wednesdays and Fridays. All students would learn virtually on Mondays.

Even Cranston’s “full in-person” scenario submitted to the state on Friday would likely only have elementary school students in the classroom full time, Nota-Masse said.

“That would be a more difficult plan to initiate,” she said. She noted that Cranston’s two high schools each have upwards of 1,600 students, so even bringing back half the students would mean hundreds of kids in school at once. (Cranston High School West already had to quarantine its entire school in March after a student tested positive for COVID-19.)

She said a large number of parents have expressed concerns about it being safe for children to go back in person, even as distance learning could cause problems for those who can’t work from home.

“We’re almost in a no-win situation,” Nota-Masse said. “We understand all the concerns of parents and we also understand the economic impact of making sure people can go to work. So we’re doing the best we can to come up with plans that are safe for each of our communities.”

Multiple other districts have also proposed hybrid models in public forums with parents and in the plans they submitted to RIDE. In the Bristol-Warren Regional School District’s plan, for example, even the “full in-person” scenario rules out the option for middle and high schoolers.

“At the middle and high school level, the Full In-Person Model will not be adopted due to space
limitations and our inability to adequately meet social distance requirements,” the Bristol-Warren plan reads.

Multiple districts are still aiming for full in-person schooling though, including Providence, where Superintendent Harrison Peters said earlier this week the goal was to bring every student back with “stable groups” of 30 or fewer.

Even Providence’s “partial in-person” plan submitted to RIDE keeps elementary and middle schools fully in person, while only reducing high school to 50% capacity. Either way, the district plans to open a “virtual learning academy” for students and teachers who are immunocompromised and cannot safely return to school.

Several superintendents declined to provide their draft plans to Target 12 until they become final. But some noted they were leaning one way or another, and many districts said they would prioritize students with IEPs and younger students for in-person learning.

North Providence Superintendent Joseph Goho — who would not provide the district’s plan yet — said he was already moving towards the hybrid model when Gov. Gina Raimondo announced on June 10 that the goal was to have all students in Rhode Island back to school in person.

“A few days prior to the governor’s announcement that the goal is a full return to school in the fall, the [superintendents] were all told by RIDE that we could probably anticipate and start planning for a hybrid return in the fall,” Goho said in an email. “Then a few days later, much to our surprise, the announcement was made differently.”

“I believe it’s time to get back to school in person,” Raimondo said on June 10. “Today I am setting a goal that we in Rhode Island will return to full in-person school this fall.”

On Friday, Raimondo along with Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green and Health Director Nicole Alexander-Scott issued a joint statement saying they would “rely on facts and science” in making the final decisions.

“Every step of the way, our state’s response to COVID-19 has been driven by science. We have rejected the false choice of an all-or-nothing approach and taken targeted, data-driven steps to keep Rhode Islanders safe,” the statement said, adding that it was being issued “in response to the White House’s rejection of science in their school decision-making.”

A spokesperson declined to say which districts had submitted plans so far on Friday. (The deadline is midnight.) RIDE is planning to spend the next two weeks reviewing the plans and “working with local school leaders to ensure the final plans put communities first.”

“Public health will drive all reopening decisions, and RIDE will continue to work closely with our colleagues at the Rhode Island Department of Health to monitor the COVID-19 pandemic in our communities,” a statement from RIDE said. ‘We expect to make preliminary determinations on which scenarios schools should plan for in early August, with final determinations closer to the opening of schools statewide on August 31.”

Spokesperson Pete Janhunen did not answer a question about whether RIDE could require those districts that have already announced partial in-person plans to bring students back full time.

Transportation woes

The matter of how to transport kids to school while remaining socially distant remains one of the biggest challenges, with a number of districts outright asking parents to opt-out of the busing system if they can get their child to school another way.

In Providence, Peters initially pitched an idea to move K-8 students to the district close to their home so more could walk, but ruled out the proposal amid outrage from parents. He’s now promising not to displace any students from their schools, but transportation remains a significant issue that is yet to be solved.

In Burrillville, the superintendent wrote in a letter to parents that they will need to apply starting next week for their children to ride the bus, and the district may need to use a lottery to determine who gets a seat.

“If you can provide transportation or if you can arrange for car pooling, please plan to do so,” Superintendent Michael Sollitto wrote in the letter. “If there are more requests than available bus seats, a lottery will be conducted to establish the bus list.”

Smithfield is planning to more strictly implement its existing walking policy, removing students from the bus lists who live within a mile of school for elementary students or two miles for middle and and high schoolers. The students can stay on the bus list, however, if walking would require crossing a main road.

Students must sit one to a seat unless they are siblings, according to the latest guidance from RIDE, severely decreasing bus capacity.