PROVIDENCE — While the diocesan Catholic Schools Office and a team of principals and educators have been preparing for several months for the return to in-person school this fall, Superintendent Dan Ferris anxiously awaited Gov. Gina Raimondo’s final word on the status of that return for the state’s public schools, which she delivered in a press conference Monday.
The governor addressed the five metrics that schools needed to comply with in order to reopen fully for in-person learning, including Statewide and Municipal Readiness, along with testing, supply and operational readiness.
“We were pleased and grateful for the governor’s address today,” Ferris told Rhode Island Catholic Monday afternoon.
“She spoke directly to religious and other nonpublic schools, stating clearly that they are free to open full-in-person. The governor said that she applauded Catholic and private schools for their willingness and their preparation for full in-person reopening.”
At the press conference, Gov. Raimondo indicated that two of the state’s school districts, Providence and Central Falls, were two communities still registering above the allowable threshold for COVID-19 testing positivity. As such, their public schools would only be able to operate with a limited number of students on Sept. 14, when all other districts may return to full in-person instruction.
Although the governor indicated that Catholic and other private schools did not have to adhere to the state guidelines for reopening, and could open all their schools for full, in-person learning, Ferris said that Catholic schools in the Capital City would follow the lead of their public counterparts.
He said that the Catholic schools did not create their own pandemic response guidance and have chosen to follow, as closely as possible, district guidance produced by the Rhode Island Department of Education and the Rhode Island Department of Health.
“Some Catholic schools in Providence, however, to maintain the necessary distancing between students, will still reopen under partial in-person,” Ferris said. “We hope this will change to full in-person within a month or two, except for those students who have health risks or are more comfortable learning from home.”
Some Catholic schools, such as Bishop Hendricken, which began on Monday with students seated socially distanced on the athletic fields under the warm sunshine to start their return, are eager to open earlier than Sept. 14. Others will reopen over the course of the next two weeks.
After a thorough cleaning, schools began to build their stock of personal protective equipment for students and staff.
Many are looking to increase their supply of PPE after they receive a share of the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds that they’ve applied for.
“Schools have procured enough PPE to open on the date they’re looking to open and then they’ll look to supplement those supplies with additional supplies after the ESSER Funds are released,” Ferris said.
Over the past few weeks, as the beginning of this unique school year approached, principals interviewed on their plans for reopening were preparing for a variety of scenarios.
Janet Rufful, principal of St. Augustine School in Providence, heard from families who have a variety of concerns regarding childcare, class size and busing in particular. For parents and teachers and administrators preparing and planning during a pandemic, it’s a lot to wrap your head around.
“We have a planning committee that has been meeting all summer. We had three learning plans: full-in-person learning, hybrid, some students attending school five days a week and some participating in distance learning, and full distance learning, which, depending on the plan include arrival and departure schedules, classroom set-up with social distancing, classroom and bathroom schedules, signage in the building, cleaning supplies and cleaning schedules.”
Rufful said the school has also made some staffing changes to better meet the needs of the students. In order to build their plans, in addition to their own research, St. Augustine School has been conducting parent, student and teacher surveys and scheduling informational online meetings for parents.
“We are continuing to share the plans and changes as we are getting new information every day,” she shared. “I think teachers and parents have concerns regarding all three plans. Each plan has pros and cons. Our guidelines for all programs are safety for all children, families and teachers, delivering a strong Catholic academic curriculum and keeping open communication with all members of the St. Augustine School community. We believe open communication and a collaborative effort will help address concerns and keep us focused on the guidelines.”
Father John V. Doyle School in Coventry has also been preparing to bring students and staff safely back to the classroom since mid-June with the assembly of the Fall Preparedness Team, made up of school staff and teachers.
“The team initially started brainstorming possible reopening scenarios. Then, once we received the specific reopening guidance from the Rhode Island Department of Education and Rhode Island Department of Health, we began dissecting these guidelines and applying them to our specific community and facilities,” said principal Kevin Peloquin. “During the process, we also consulted with school leaders from across the state, as well as healthcare professionals and parents within our school community.”
Based on the guidelines and input from a variety of community members, some measures being implemented include: Spacing desks in all classrooms at least 6 feet apart; requiring masks for all teachers and staff, as well as all students K-8; improving ventilation and air circulation in our classrooms; relocating the nurse’s office to better meet potential healthcare needs; and expanding access to technology including moving to a one-to-one model with Chromebooks for students in grades 2-8.
The school also created an online daily symptom screening tool for faculty, staff and students and added increased cleaning protocols including the purchase of an electrostatic spray cleaner for classrooms.
Peloquin added that the input and advice of teachers regarding how to best and most safely apply guidelines to the school community has been invaluable.
“Because teachers were deeply involved in the process, we were able to create a plan that appropriately reflected and addressed their ideas and concerns.”
Father John V. Doyle School also held multiple virtual town hall meetings with parents and families to review the essential elements of the plan and answer questions.
“I am so grateful for the feedback we received during these town hall sessions. The questions and conversations at these meetings guided further revisions to our plan. Indeed, one of the key components of our plan is that it must remain agile and adaptable to changing guidance and data. Thus, we continue to revise the plan and post the revisions on our school website so that the community always has access to the most up to date plan.”
Peloquin shared that he has also heard from public school families looking to enroll at Father John V. Doyle.
“Undoubtedly our small class sizes and larger classroom spaces make it more manageable for us to safely abide by all health and safety guidelines for reopening while maintaining full, in-person learning for all of our students,” he said. “We have limited our class sizes to help maintain a safe teaching and learning environment for all; however, we do still have openings in some grade levels, as well as active waitlists in others. Any interested families should contact the school.”