By LAURA WEICK With less than a week until Warwick schools welcome students to mostly-virtual classrooms, teachers and administrators hustle to prepare for the start of an academic year like no other. Currently, the school department will teach most
With less than a week until Warwick schools welcome students to mostly-virtual classrooms, teachers and administrators hustle to prepare for the start of an academic year like no other.
Currently, the school department will teach most students completely online beginning Sept. 14, with the exception of special education and vocational technology students, who will attend in-person classes. Gov. Gina Raimondo wants all students to be in-person learning by Oct. 13. Warwick Superintendent Philip Thornton said that the school committee would address if and how they will attempt this next week.
During a school committee meeting Tuesday night, Thornton said that the state sent teams to visit Warwick schools to evaluate 38 indicators if buildings are safe to reopen. These indicators included health and safety guidelines such as if anyone entering the building would wear a mask and have their temperature taken, but also includes factors such as physical distancing and access to staffing, which Thornton argued the schools have had difficulty finding. While Warwick meets many of these benchmarks in theory, administrators argued the feasibility of meeting these guidelines don’t necessarily mean they’re safe.
“[Distancing is] feasible if there's few enough students in the building and we can keep them separated, but most of our school activities, putting the numbers of students that we have in the classrooms, having them to go down corridors, especially at the secondary level, you couldn't keep them apart six feet,” Chief Budget Officer Anthony Ferrucci said. “And does that necessarily translate into being a safe environment and our definition [of this being a safe environment] is no."
Air ventilation also remains a concern. One of the indicators for reopening a school building is if a school has a central heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system or sufficient ventilation, which only three Warwick Schools currently have: Warwick Veterans Memorial Middle School, the Warwick Area Career and Technical Center and the Warwick Early Learning Center at John Brown Francis. These three schools will host special populations such as students with disabilities, vocational technology students and preschool students for in-person classes. Thornton said that the school department is looking to install air filters in schools that do not currently have sufficient ventilation, but he is not sure how much this will cost or when they could be installed.
A $56 million bond for Warwick schools that will be on the ballot this November includes over $26.8 million in funding for HVAC at all of the elementary schools. Ferrucci said that this bond “couldn’t be more timely.”
“I wish we could have done this three years ago, and we would have been able to ride out this pandemic in much better style,” Ferrucci said. “But it is what it is and we are here and so now we're looking for support from the community to make another investment into the schools.”
The bond also fund $13.7 million to replace windows, doors and other parts of building exteriors, $6.5 million for full roof replacements at Drum Rock, Holliman, Scott, Warwick Neck and Winman schools, $3.7 in site work such as sidewalks, $2.6 million in electrical upgrades, $2.3 million for asbestos abatement at Winman Middle School and $204,000 in plumbing upgrades.
Back to the (online) classroom Vicki Venditelli and Kelly Harrington, both math teachers at Pilgrim High School, are setting up classrooms that no student will enter for at least a month.
Both of them aim to teach from their classrooms during distance learning, even if their students are learning from home. They aren’t the only ones. Although teachers aren’t required to teach from the classroom, many elementary, middle and high school teachers believe there is a benefit to teaching in an empty classroom.
“I think if there's some of us here we can collaborate a little bit more,” Harrington explained. “It's nice to have people to talk to about what you're doing and how to do it.”
Yet many teachers are concerned if a full in-person reopening occurs, as requested by the governor. Both Venditelli and Harrington said they would still teach in person, but voiced safety and distancing concerns similar to those on the administrative level.
“Look at how tight my desks are together right now,” Venditelli said, gesturing at an empty classroom. “If the governor wants full 100% in-person learning, that's 25 desks.”
“And we can’t pull that off because we have nowhere to store them,” Pilgrim High School Principal Gerald Habershaw adds.
Although Venditelli said that distance learning is the safest option right now, students’ academic performances vastly differ.
“I had some kids that turned a positive corner, being at home and feeling more comfortable reaching out to me through emails, instead of in person asking me for help,” Venditelli said. “I feel like there were some kids who went the other way, they just couldn't get themselves into the routine at home and they fell off a little bit. But I did feel very positive about a few kids that were reaching out for help and working with them a lot more because it was more one on one.”
Habershaw worried that new students may have trouble adjusting to distance learning without preestablished connections too.
“The most difficult part of it is not getting to know the kids face to face,” Habershaw said. “So if you're going to try and do it virtually, we don't know the freshmen. So getting to know them virtually and not in person is going to be more difficult. That's why last year when we left in March, we knew the kids because we established a relationship. Now we don't have that, so that's going to be the biggest concern.”
Students agreed that distance learning was not ideal, but generally understood why they had to continue it this year.
“It's not really the same as getting an education in class but it's all we can do to be safe,” Pilgrim High School sophomore Lily Soars said. She and other members of her class were scheduled to pick up their textbooks Wednesday morning.
Beyond education, many students miss the socialization and activities that come from in-person classes.
“Hopefully we’ll be done with [distance learning] by March or April so we can go back in-person and see our friends,” Emma Spolidoro, another sophomore at Pilgrim High School said.
Spolidoro, who is on the school’s swim team, hopes that sports will return too.
During Tuesday’s meeting, the committee unanimously approved for Warwick’s high schools to participate in some sports, even while engaged in distance learning. Cross-country, soccer and field hockey teams will be allowed to participate in games and meets, albeit with social distancing modification. Football and volleyball will be pushed to begin in early 2021. Middle school sports have been postponed until further notice.
Also at the meeting, Warwick Veterans Principal David Tober resigned from his position in order to take a job in a different school district. Thornton said the school department would name a replacement next week.