Committee keeps religious holidays in … for now

Committee keeps religious holidays in … for now

Members also talk full return to school, other matters

CUMBERLAND – The final 2021-2022 school district calendar approved by the School Committee last week keeps religious holidays as days off.

Chairwoman Karen Freedman, whose family celebrates Jewish holidays, said she believes the district should start considering making celebration of religious holidays a personal choice and not including them on the secular school calendar, as many other districts have done across the country.

Freedman and Amy Rogalski were the two no votes on approving the calendar, as it passed 5-2.

Also part of the finalized calendar presented by Supt. Bob Mitchell is moving two professional days originally scheduled near the Aug. 30 start of school to later in September and October, making for a more consistent first few days of the next school year.

Member Paul DiModica said his only concern related to the calendar is that he wants to make sure renovations to transitional space at Cumberland High School are completed in time for the start of the year so Cumberland Hill Elementary School students can move in and the district’s planned renovation projects can commence.

Here are some other topics discussed at the March 25 School Committee meeting:

• Mitchell updated members on the return to school, saying the last groups of returning students, in grades 10-11, should be back to Cumberland High School on April 6. Many parents were anxious to hear when those students would be back to a four-day schedule of in-person learning, he said. The district’s COVID numbers remain low, he said, with only a few new positive cases among students in the previous week and none among staff members. As more people are vaccinated, he said, he expects the situation to keep improving, but he said it’s important to remain vigilant and continue with mitigation efforts. Mitchell said he’s grateful for all of those who are doing the hard work of keeping people safe and getting schools prepared for students’ return, and there continues to be no data that’s concerning. At some point, said Mitchell, the district should be considering getting back to five-day in-person learning, which would be more feasible with increased capacity on buses.

• Mitchell said one challenge will be to administer the Rhode Island Common Assessment System test to students who are still in distance learning, since they need to be in school for it. He said the district may have to use distance learning Mondays to get those students assessed.

• The district’s COVID task force has downgraded rules to now require that students who travel as well as their close contacts to return to school on day eight after their return, with proof of a negative COVID test on day five. A number of families are planning April vacations, he said, and were anxious to hear about these rules. The district started with the “gold standard” of a 14-day quarantine, he said, then reduced it to 10, and now to this option, which is still within guidance. Many districts are still at 14 days, he said.

“The important thing here is proof of a negative test,” he said.

On quarantining related to students on buses, Mitchell clarified that the whole busload of students doesn’t need to quarantine if there’s a case, just those in close proximity to the student on the bus for more than 15 minutes in the day.

He said he’s been impressed at the high school level as students, who are such “social creatures” and are typically able to maximize the five minutes between class, have continued to be cooperative in getting from point A to point B in the high school as quickly as possible.

• The committee honored retiring employee Marguerite Savickas, most recently a member of the IT Department. Director Mike Chandler wished her the very best as she heads into retirement and spends more time with her grandchild, saying that no one knew how important her role as data manager would be when she was first appointed, but with the Rhode Island Department of Education seeking timely and accurate information “yesterday,” her work became critical. Mitchell said Savikas has always been positive, always willing to help, and has been incredibly professional during her time in Cumberland, and she will be missed.

• The committee also cheered for B.F. Norton 3rd-grader Nicholas Silva on his initiative to land a $5,000 grant from the Feinstein Foundation. The “incredibly benevolent” Alan Shawn Feinstein started a golden ticket contest where tickets from all over the state are pulled every Monday, said Mitchell, and Silva did the work of checking to see if his ticket was the one pulled and ended up earning $5,000 for his school plus another $500 for a charity of his choice.

• DiModica told the committee that the district was ordering parts for the Garvin School playground and for the new administrative entrance at the high school.

• The school budget is being heard this week, with 5:30 p.m. meetings of the fiscal subcommittee and full committee on both Tuesday and Thursday. A vote on the Supt. Mitchell’s proposal, which seeks a 4 percent increase in funding from the town, is possible at the Thursday meeting.

• Rogalski, who has children attending three different schools, said she’s been very impressed with the way schools and administration have handled traffic flow, particularly with the “insane volume” of cars seen in line at drop-off and pickup times every day during these pandemic months.

• DiModica praised Special Education Director Rachel Santa and her team for the “glowing letter” they received from the Rhode Island Department of Education describing the zero deficiencies found during a five-year audit. They passed with flying colors, he said. Fiorillo echoed that praise, saying the department, particularly after a restructuring a few years ago, has continued to stand out for its good work.