Plan calls for two days of in-person school for most students

Plan calls for two days of in-person school for most students

PAWTUCKET – Supt. Cheryl McWilliams says she was shocked by survey results showing a large percentage of Pawtucket parents favoring virtual learning or a hybrid model for the new school year, and school officials are now working to get more solid answers on what it all means.

Updating the School Committee on a reopening plan at a July 23 meeting, McWilliams said school staff are planning for every possible scenario for going back to school.

With an ever-evolving pandemic and shifting responses, much could still change, she said, even on parents’ preferences heading into the new school year.

A second survey, with almost a 50 percent response rate, saw a bump from 60 percent of respondents in a first survey to 70 percent in a second one expressing a desire for a virtual or hybrid option. So if there were more than 4,000 responses, said McWilliams, that means about 3,000 favored something other than a full return to school, a result that came as a big surprise to administrators.

“I just did not expect that,” she said.

Another survey, set to close this Friday, will ask families for more specific information as schools move plans behind concepts into a reality that’s now a little more than a month away.

As with most districts in the state, Pawtucket is now favoring a hybrid in-person and virtual plan, but Gov. Gina Raimondo will make an announcement on Aug. 17 on what all districts will be doing, so there’s a chance those plans could be scrapped. Each district was required to come up with plans for in-person education, continued virtual learning, or a hybrid model.

Pawtucket’s hybrid plan, which McWilliams acknowledged could be scrapped if Raimondo chooses a different direction, calls for most students to be in school two days each week.

The way it would likely work, as hashed out by a school reopening task force, is as follows:

• Monday would be a distance learning day for all students, with deep cleanings of all buildings scheduled for that day.

• Tuesdays would bring distance learning for half of students. A deep dive on data showed balanced classrooms if students with last names starting with A through K are in school on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

• Students with last names starting with L through Z would be in school on Wednesdays and Fridays, with Tuesdays and Thursdays functioning as distance learning days.

• School and district administrators will also work to identify special populations of students who will be in class Tuesday to Friday, a “special class” of students, including those at greater risk of learning loss. Students in self-contained classes and multilingual learners considered most at risk would be included here.

• Based on the surprising feedback from the community, local schools are also planning a simultaneous virtual academy for students and staff who can’t or won’t return to physical buildings, said McWilliams. She said school officials have heard from staff members and a significant number will be unable to return. The survey that went out last week and is due back this week will gauge interest in the virtual academy.

McWilliams said hosting such an academy is a wise option. She said there are parents in the community who need to get back to work. Depending on how many sign up for the virtual academy, it could free up space on buses and in the classrooms. With 1,500 students in grades K-5 choosing virtual, it could potentially free up space for a full in-person return of all other students in grades K-5.

McWilliams said school officials want the economy to function, and they also want to help parents, but the ultimate and most important goal is safety, and every life involved with local schools matters.

Barriers to a full return to in-person learning include spacing, social distancing, transportation, and staffing, given guidelines, as well as what would be a significant budget impact, said McWilliams.

The Pawtucket district tried to align its plans, now being reviewed by state education officials and set to be approved later this week, to be similar to others, said McWilliams. The idea is not to pit districts against each other and to present a consistent message.

Plans were based on core values of safety first, science, and transparency, among others. Plans are to be equitable, based on what’s best for everyone, especially those impacted by inequities and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Equitable does not mean equal, said McWilliams, and decisions will be based on what’s best for everyone. She said school officials are listening to various stakeholders and intend to be flexible and nimble, making decisions based on the best interest of students and the community.

School Committee member Kim Grant asked if there will be enough time between classes to get rooms properly disinfected. McWilliams said she’ll be meeting with custodial staff later this week to work out hours, but there is confidence among everyone that proper scheduling can be worked out. She called it a “significant task” but one that is doable. According to school staff, the biggest issue for cleaning will be during the day.

Circumstances related to the pandemic are changing every day, said McWilliams, with all sorts of scenarios and bits of information being shared with families across the state through various channels. She said she’s looking forward to the feedback the schools will receive this week that will allow officials to get more detailed with their plans.