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The challenge of reconfiguring schools to protect students from COVID-19

School Updates

COVENTRY, R.I. (WPRI) – It is a geometry and math lesson sandwiched between science and biology combined with shop, even though school is out for summer.

By size, age and enrollment, Coventry’s Hopkins Hill Elementary is a typical Rhode Island school. It was built in 1961, making it about three years older than the average age for state school buildings. With 388 students, its enrollment is also about average for an elementary school.

Jason Martin, the district facilities and transportation director, took Target 12 inside an average classroom, tape measure in hand; 23 feet by 33 feet for a square footage of 759.

“Once you start placing desks six feet apart, this space is going to fill up very quickly,” Martin said. “There are also no cabinets for storage. No closets. All the items in here have to go somewhere to free up space.”

Plus, limited electrical outlets for recharging laptops that are part of the various plans awaiting state approval.

Complicating all of the above – many districts were using group learning settings, with multple students clustered together.

Now, single desks are getting pulled out of storage in some districts.

“They’ve been around for a long time,” Martin said. “Some of their legs are wobbly. Some of the feet are falling off.”

Another key safety component involves nurses’ offices that may not have the room to isolate students who develop symptoms while they’re at school

Sarah Mangiarelli, the district’s Director of Finance, said Coventry has ordered portable nursing stations that would be outside the school.

“To the tune of $98,000 a piece in order to separate students from the rest of the class,” Mangiarelli said.

Traditional bubblers are being replaced by no-touch water stations out in in halls that will more than likely have new traffic patterns.

“They’re about seven and a half feet wide,” Martin said. “In order to keep everyone at the distance they need to be, we would have to have one direction travel.”

No matter what the plan for Hopkins Hill or other newer or older facilities, cleaning the surfaces on more regular basis is considered vital.

“We’ll need 12 more custodians,” Mangiarelli said.

According to Martin, the search for candidates has been difficult and no matter who is hired there will be training on new equipment including disinfecting atomizer sprayers.

“The custodians have to be trained how to use them. When to use them. What PPE to wear,” Martin said. “So, to say you can just grab anyone is not a fair statement.”

Coventry School Superintendent Craig Levis said right now just under has $5 million is budgeted to cover COVID-19 expenses. That’s just under 10 percent of the district’s total budget.

So far, the district has received $747,000 in additional funding from according to Mangiarelli.

“Unless there’s additional federal funds school districts across the country are going to be grappling with the same issue,” she said. “We have a surplus from 2020 but we do not have permission to use that at this time.”

Coventry is part of a nine district consortium and Levis said every district in the state is facing similar facility decisions.

“Everything revolves around the safety of students and teachers,’ Levis said. “There are a lot of moving targets. We could start with one plan and half to change it if there’s an uptick (in COVID-19 case. It’s a challenge.”

School district reopening plans, including how they will use their buildings, are slated to be public by the end of the month, but final approval is not expected until the end of next month.

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau.

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