NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — In a rare move, the North Kingstown School Committee held its second meeting in one week on Saturday morning over Zoom to address the start of the 2020/21 school year, voting for an elementary reopening plan that didn’t involve the controversial proposal to shut down Forest Park Elementary for the year, extended the high school day by an hour compared to previous proposals and made a request for $500,000 from the Town Council to fund these plans, with many unknowns about their funding for the year still in place.
“Our problem, and I want to be clear on this, is that we are effectively implementing a plan without knowing what the Town Council’s answer is yet, and we need the council to please schedule a vote as soon as possible so that we know what we need to do,” School Committee Chairman Greg Blasbalg said. “If we don’t have this funding then we can’t do all of these things.”
Over 550 people attended the virtual meeting, and Superintendent Phil Auger said he thought many were there because of his previous proposal of Option 3 of the elementary school reopening plan, which would’ve seen Forest Park Elementary close for the year, with most of its students relocated to Quidnessett and its staff dispersed across the district. The proposal drew instant blowback from the Forest Park community, leading parents to launch a No on Option 3 protest Thursday on Post Road. Auger took time before public comment to say that the option had been taken off the table.
“None of the proposals include moving students from Forest Park,” Auger said, while also saying the previous proposal was not related to a long-term proposal he made to the Town Council in December that would see a new North Kingstown Middle School built on the site of the current Wickford Middle School, and Davisville Middle School would become an elementary school to replace Forest Park. He said the project would have taken about seven to ten years to complete before the pandemic, and now would probably take over a decade.
In place of Option 3, Auger announced a new proposal, Option 4, which would transfer existing district resources, hire 13 new elementary classroom teachers for one year and add to their short-term district-wide health and social-emotional support capabilities. These modifications, he said, would fill out instructional and administrative needs for the Distance Learning Academy, reduce class sizes at the other elementary schools and add administrative control over the DLA, while preventing Forest Park’s temporary closure. The option, Auger said, would cost the district $1 million, half of which they can cover by dipping into the School Capital Reserve Fund, while the other half would have to come through one-time capital funding approved by the Town Council or, if that failed, through cuts to other areas of the district.
Members of the school committee individually voiced their oppositions to Option 3 or any measure that would see Forest Park — or any school in the district — close for the year, and the decision to back Auger’s new proposal passed 5-0.
Another key part of the agenda was the committee’s 5-0 approval of a daily schedule for the high school, which would make the school day an hour longer than previous proposals. The proposal, called Option 2, sees the high school run from 7:15 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the previously-proposed 4x with three 74 minute classes and one 84 minute class to accommodate a breakfast break, with the school giving all students a grab-and-go breakfast in the morning, rather than having lunch blocks that would require 15 minute cleanings in between and the utilization of the gym and classrooms for socially-distanced lunchrooms, according to Auger. The district believes the grab-and-go meals can be federally reimbursed, though admitted it could prove costly if they weren’t, and noted transportation could be made easier with increased bus capacities.
Outside of the plan not being reimbursed, the only cons the district believed came with it were that it will only allow for 15 minutes of distance learning check-in and that the new bus plan conflicted with the Jamestown Public Schools busing plan, a point raised by the committee’s Jamestown School Committee representative Sally Schott. Auger said he had already contacted Jamestown Superintendent Kenneth Duva to figure out a solution that works for both districts.
While some parents asked why they couldn’t do full in-person learning during the nearly hour-long public comment, Auger said the current situation with COVID-19 and socially distanced learning would make that impossible, arguing the district doesn’t have enough transportation capacity or student parking in relation to the Rhode Island Department of Health guidelines, and that it would create too many obstacles for social distancing in general, including lunch and passing between classes. Auger also noted that around 50 percent of all districts in Rhode Island have similar A/B plans or are going full distance learning.
As for learning itself, NKHS Principal Barabara Morse said one of the key things she wanted to see was all students, whether in class or at home, following the bell schedule.
“We think it’s really important that we make sure all students are following the bell schedule,” Morse said.
Attendance will be taken before each class and students learning remotely will be responsible for attending live sessions scheduled by their teachers as if it was a normal class.
The district also noted the importance of having time for social and emotional check ins for high schoolers, time to check in with students doing distance learning and a schedule that could be adjusted for transition between in person and distance learning.
They also listed the pros and cons of 4x4 schedules against a traditional eight period option, saying the 4x4 would lead to less exposure between students and staff, more frequent in-person class time with teachers and less courses to focus on at a time. It would also allow for fifth-year seniors or those who only need 2.5 credits to graduate to do so in a semester rather than a full year.
The biggest downside for the district was the potential gap in learning between semesters, especially in regards to Advanced Placement (AP) courses, which have national exams in April.
“In some instances, there are going to be semester gaps,” Morse said.
To counter this, Morse said, the school would fully utilize lesson plans and study guides created by AP’s parent organization, College Board, to maintain students’ knowledge retention as well as hold AP seminars with NKHS AP teachers to keep kids prepared for the exams.
As for the eight period schedule, while that lack of a gap was a positive, the district noted that with the alternating A/B schedule, most students would only get to see each of their teachers about five times per month while also increasing the exposure rate for both students and teachers.
The School Committee made their plans before Gov. Gina Raimondo’s Monday announcement, deciding it’s better to have a plan they can adjust based on state guidelines rather than no plan at all. And, with her allowing all districts across the state to fully reopen — with the exception of Providence and Central Falls — they decided to stay with their plan to work toward full in-person classes again.
Other notable actions included approving the mask policy unanimously and voting down a measure to go to full distance learning by a 1-4 vote, with the sole vote in favor coming from Jacob Mather, who proposed it at the previous meeting. Other members said they understood where he was coming from, even if they didn’t fully agree with his proposal.
The 2020/21 school year is slated to start for students on Sept. 14.