Cumberland students urge district to change course, allow in-person start to school year

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CUMBERLAND, R.I. (WPRI) — Students in Cumberland are frustrated that the district has opted to begin the school year with distance learning, despite being given the green light to fully reopen in-person by Gov. Gina Raimondo earlier this week.

Nearly two dozen students gathered outside Cumberland High School Thursday afternoon, calling upon the school district to change course.

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In late August, the Cumberland School Committee initially voted to start the year with full distance learning after admitting the district is not ready to safely send students back in-person.

Students who attended Thursday’s demonstration tell 12 News they know not everyone feels the district’s decision was a bad idea, but argue they should still be given the option.

“We should have a choice as a school community to go back or not,” student Owen Molis said. “If you don’t feel safe going back, you can stay home and do it virtually. But if you want to go back, you should have the educational right to go back and achieve your in-person learning.”

Soon after the Cumberland School Committee’s decision was made final, the high school’s senior class president started an online petition urging them to reconsider.

Cumberland Superintendent Robert Mitchell said at a school committee meeting Thursday evening that his goal is to have all students partially return in person by Oct. 13. He also reiterated that preschool and special program students will be the only students allowed to return in person on the first day of school.

His recommendation comes following the results of a ventilation study on all of the district’s school buildings, which found 25% of the classrooms don’t meet the state’s reopening guidelines.

“Given the fact that we have some work to do as a result of the ventilation study, it is my recommendation that we begin the school year with distance learning until we are able to get all classrooms to a place that we can safely provide a learning experience for our students and a safe place for our staff to work with students,” Mitchell said.

Cumberland School Committee Vice Chairman Karen Freedman expressed disappointment in the number of classrooms that were “red” on the chart, meaning they didn’t meet the standard.

“We know this information now and it is our duty to do something about it and to fix it,” she said. “We have to figure out… how we can do that in the most expedient manner and how do we do things that make our spaces the safest they can be?”

Paul Murphy, the engineer behind the study, said once the school district knows the actual number of students and staff members who actually return in person once it becomes an option, the numbers could fluctuate.

“In some cases, those numbers may not be accurate,” he explained. “If we could get the data that properly represented the classroom, we could change some of those reds to greens.”

The Cumberland School Committee asked Murphy and the company he works for to rework the study based on the hybrid model.

“We’re going to make sure that the students who return to school every day are in a school that meets the guidance for the reopening of schools,” Mitchell said.

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