NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — Students can look forward to sports, field trips, activities and clubs this fall in Narragansett, which starts its school year Sept. 8.
Superintendent of Schools Peter Cummings said the goal is to make this year’s school experience as close to normal as possible for students.
But Cummings and the administrators in North and South Kingstown also are putting in place measures to protect against COVID-19, particularly with the spread of the Delta variant in recent weeks.
“We are going to keep the students as safe as possible but at the same time have as normal a year as we possibly can,” Cummings said.
Children younger than 12 are not eligible to receive a COVID vaccine, leading the local schools to use other tools at their disposal to mitigate outbreaks.
Gov. Dan McKee signed an executive order mandating face coverings for all faculty, staff and students returning to schools in September.
There’s been pushback against forced masking. Glocester is going to court to try to overturn the state Council of Elementary and Secondary Education’s requirement that all back to school COVID plans have a mask mandate in order to receive approval.
And while some parents have spoken out against mandates here in South County, school leadership has embraced forced masking and is in the process of incorporating it into their plans, which are due to the Department of Education on Friday.
“We’re going to follow the guidance that’s been put out by the Rhode Island Department of Health and Department of Education,” Cummings said.
Narragansett students will fully return to in-person learning, he said, and follow federal and state guidance for transportation, which requires masking on bus rides.
School buildings have been modified to improve air circulation and ventilation, Cummings said.
“We will make some accommodation – trying to keep windows open when the weather is nice and having as much ventilation as possible,” he said. “All the pieces that have been recommended, we have been putting in place over the last year.”
When it comes to sports, local schools are following guidelines from the Rhode Island Interscholastic League and CDC based on the requirements by the individual sports.
“The R.I. Interscholastic League runs all high school sports in the state,” South Kingstown Athletic Director Terrence Lynch said. “We have 27 teams that compete in all divisions.”
Those advisory protocols include encouraging social distancing at venues, wearing of masks in accordance with local guidelines and prohibiting athletes from sharing gear, water bottles and other equipment.
All outdoor sports would not require athletes to wear masks, Lynch said. Indoor sports such as volleyball would require them. Fans inside the venue also would wear masks.
South Kingstown’s School Committee approved a mask policy Tuesday. Members, aware that the first day of school is fast approaching, wanted to have a policy in place to receive state approval for their plan. But the committee also gave itself the opportunity to revisit the policy in the next month to tweak it to better suit South Kingstown’s schools.
Peace Dale Elementary School Principal Kimberly Komocar is encouraged by the new guidance, which she said is less restrictive than what was in place at the end of the previous year.
“We’re reinstating field trips if they are able to follow COVID guidelines,” Komocar said. “We can have visitors back in the building with certain stipulations, we can have after-school programming, wraparound services for families.”
According to South Kingstown’s draft plan, all classes will be in-person, with staff able to travel between different classrooms. Rooms will have assigned seating and three-foot distancing, when possible.
The schools also will encourage outdoor learning when it’s feasible. The plan calls for students to remain in stable groups during recess, field trips, lunch and other activities.
“The one modification that’s going to have to happen is, we will need to know where students sit at lunch for contact tracing purposes,” South Kingstown High School Principal Chip McGair said. “But they are going to be able to eat with their friends at lunch at the high school level.”
It also calls for schools to continually monitor learning progress and loss, and to identify students potentially in need of additional academic or social emotional support.
“Students need to be in-person learning every day,” Broad Rock Middle School Principal Tammy McNeiece said. “With the teachers coming back knowing that they will not have to teach on three platforms – with 100% virtual learners at home, hybrid learners, in-person learners – they can truly focus on all students that are in front of them. We’re very relieved and pleased with that.”
North Kingstown will return to its pre-pandemic routine in several key ways: students and teachers will be in the classrooms, instead of holding virtual lessons. Classes and busing will go back to their pre-COVID schedules as well.
The schools will no longer perform symptomatic or asymptomatic COVID-19 tests in school or during sports unless conditions warrant it.
Regardless of vaccination status, North Kingstown will require masks for anyone inside school buildings when COVID transmission is measured as ‘substantial’ or ‘high,’ as determined by CDC guidelines and state Department of Health weekly data. When transmission is ‘low’ or ‘moderate,’ the schools will not mandate them.
Substantial COVID transmission is defined as 50 or more cases per 100,000 people.
Masks are required on buses regardless of transmission status until the federal order is lifted.
They also are required for students and staff who gather in prolonged crowded outdoor settings whenever transmission is substantial or high.
The Prout School
Principal David Estes said The Prout School, a Catholic high school in Wakefield, plans to keep most of its strategies from last year in place, with important changes to benefit the students.
It was one of only a handful of schools fully open for all students for the entire 2020-21 year.
“We did that by doing physical plant improvements, outdoor lunches, outdoor mask breaks,” Estes said. “We maintained distancing throughout the year, enforced masking and provided hybrid options last year.”
This year, the school plans to let students have greater choice with who they sit with at lunch. Last year, they were confined to lunch in home room.
“This year, we’ll have indoor seating in our cafeteria, still distanced, but the kids will be able to sit with who they want to, which is really important to them.” Outdoor lunches also will return.
The school also will hold a full theatrical performance season, three main shows, with appropriate restrictions.
“Our theater seats about 700. We did shows last spring with about 200 to 300 people spaced apart,” Estes said. Full masking will allow more students and participants to attend because minimum spacing requirements drop from six feet to three feet.
“We are going to be returning to regular gym, science and art classes,” he said. “We’re going to have free movement through the building instead of keeping kids in wings last year.”
Estes said the school intends to follow the governor’s mask order.
“We have a very high rate of fully vaccinated teachers and students,” he said.
The school held vaccination clinics in May and June.
Estes doesn’t foresee the school returning to a virtual or hybrid classroom.
“We want all the kids back in school. It’s best for teachers, it’s best for students,” he said. “But we always reserve the right to adjust things for extenuating circumstances.”