NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — The North Kingstown School Committee met via Zoom Tuesday night to approve the statewide academic calendar for the 2020-21 school year, approve the hiring of a new Athletic Director and pass several other measures ahead of the new school year, which while only a month out is still filled with uncertainties due to COVID-19.
“The amount of uncertainty in our school budget is absolutely unprecedented,” School Committee Chairman Gregory Blasbalg said.
Nearly half of the meeting was taken up by public comment, with 15 parents, students and community members voicing their concerns over the district’s plans for the school year, most of which were focused on the proposal to have North Kingstown High School students alternate half days in person with other days composed of distance learning.
Several parents and students said they felt their concerns and input weren’t being heard by the North Kingstown School Department and the School Committee, or that they felt they weren’t given the opportunity for input they thought they were promised. Many cited the mental health and well-being of students being affected by being isolated from their classmates, while others raised concerns about the quality of distance learning, namely that some students felt they retained much less of their education than they would in the classroom and noted instances of some teachers not showing up for classes.
Councilor Mary Brimer of the North Kingstown Town Council spoke during public comment as well, saying the council had extended an invitation to the School Committee to have a workshop to determine the best plan for action in the coming year while also, under the current model, endorsing a plan to have students attend their in person classes by grade rather than last name and creating an anonymous tip line for students and parents to report any teachers who don’t show up for virtual classes.
Joe Vento, an incoming senior, president of the NKHS Student Union and student representative to the School Committee, also spoke, laying out several questions for Superintendent Phil Auger regarding details of the plan and asking for a student survey as well.
Some parents of younger students, who will fully attend in person classes under the current proposal but in pods or teams to minimize exposure to a larger student body, expressed concerns over the health and safety of both students and teachers, especially if another uptick in cases occurs.
Auger thanked all who commented for their feedback and that he empathized with their feelings.
“I understand the need for more communication and we will do that,” Auger said.
Auger also agreed that having synchronous learning with virtual classes was more effective than non-synchronous learning and that the district was working hard at preparing and training for the year ahead. He said he is in regular contact with both other superintendents in the state as well as Gov. Gina Raimondo, who he noted he would be speaking to again on Wednesday, and that plans for the school year were far from set in stone with the situation constantly changing.
“No, it is certainly not done (tonight),” Auger said. “This is going to take a little time.”
While he understood concerns over the lessened in person class time, Auger said that his number one priority was the safety of the district’s students and staff and that the district will do what they feel is the most safe and doable of methods, even if they might not be the most popular.
He praised his fellow administrators as well as the teacher’s union and other staff for their work in coming together and trying to develop the best course of action they could, a sentiment shared by Blasbalg.
“This administration has done an unbelievable amount of work in coming up with this plan,” Blasbalg said.
Blasbalg said he also understood the concerns of less social interaction between high school students, but acknowledged that limited contact was also the point of the social distancing and other precautionary measures being taken by the district as well as others across Rhode Island and the country as a whole.
Per request by Auger, an item on the agenda pertaining to the approval of the hiring of a new athletic director to replace the late Dick Fossa to the front of the agenda, with Auger announcing they had chosen East Greenwich High School Athletic Director Chris Cobain for the role.
Auger praised Cobain’s work both as a coach and certified administrator, something he added could be helpful with the uncertainties of the coming school year, and his hiring was unanimously approved by the School Committee.
On the consent agenda, all but one item passed unanimously, with the exception being a decision on MyPerspectives World Literature Books for High School, which the committee unanimously voted to table to a later meeting.
On the academic calendar, the school year is slated to start on Aug. 31 and conclude on June 16, 2021, with four professional development days to train staff set up before the first day and a professional development day nearly every month except for February and June.
One of the most notable changes to the calendar was the addition of a February vacation for the district, something which hasn’t happened in several years, with school out of session from Feb. 15 through Feb. 19. Auger also noted the possibility of any potential snow day becoming a distance learning day.
The calendar was approved 5-0 by the committee, as were several other measures pertaining to the school year, including enhanced cleaning methods.
The district also voted to approve the Superintendent’s proposed budget adjustments, including putting a hold on hiring for several positions and a reduction of extracurriculars for the upcoming school year.
NKSD Chief Operating Officer Mary King made note of the “dire straits” the current situation has put the district in, and that not much assistance was coming in.
“The North Kingstown School Department has not received one penny in additional funding from any federal fund,” King said, noting that regardless of what happens, they will be taking a financial loss this year that could spell further trouble in the years to come.
School Committee Vice Chairman Bob Jones commented on calls for the district to dip into a town “rainy day” fund, saying the district’s fund was already being used to insure the next few school years against the losses that will be taken in the upcoming school year.
“I’d just be careful saying there’s a rainy day fund out there,” Jones said. “Any dollar is committed to something at the moment.”
As for bond updates, which were previously funded, King said all projects undertaken by the town were on time and being done very well, with all currently slated to be finished on or before Aug. 21.
The next scheduled School Committee meeting is set for Aug. 11.