NORTH SMITHFIELD – A new principal is in place at North Smithfield Middle School after parents learned that the former principal would be leaving the school mid-year.
Supt. Michael St. Jean announced to families on Jan. 2 that John Lahar, former principal of NSMS, is retiring from the district. Christine Lopes, a former assistant principal and dean of students at the middle school, was appointed to the position beginning Jan. 3, according to the announcement.
“While we wish Mr. Lahar all the best, we are also excited to see the energy, knowledge, dedication and love of the kids that Ms. Lopes brings to the position,” St. Jean wrote.
St. Jean told The Valley Breeze this week that Lahar notified him in November of his intent to retire from the position. The retirement, he said, will not be effective until June 30, with the former principal using a combination of vacation and sick leave until that time.
“He is retiring at the end of this year, but he worked on a resignation sooner than later and he’s utilizing his accrued vacation time and sick time,” he said.
St. Jean said he could not discuss the specifics of the former principal’s reasons for retiring mid-year but said he is leaving the district on good terms.
“It’s all been cleared, it’s above board,” he said.
James Lombardi, chairman of the North Smithfield School Committee, said the committee was presented and accepted the retirement during the last meeting on Dec. 14. The agenda for that meeting included a discussion of a “resignation/separation agreement” in closed session.
Lahar did not return a voicemail requesting comment.
Though the appointment is officially interim for now, St. Jean said he expects Lopes will remain as the permanent new principal for NSMS. The former sixth grade teacher started with the district in 2002 and has served as assistant principal since 2018.
“We’re absolutely thrilled. I mean, she has such experience and energy and such love for the kids,” St. Jean said. “We’re absolutely thrilled that she’s here to pass the torch and take over.”
The district is looking to hire a replacement assistant principal as quickly as possible, he said.
Lopes takes over at a difficult time as North Smithfield schools struggle to remain open amid a statewide spike in COVID-19 cases. St. Jean said on Monday that 22 out of about 60 staff members at North Smithfield Elementary School were expected to be out this week, with the school’s principal and assistant principal as well as Assistant Supt. Clare Arnold stepping in to cover classes.
“We’re having issues like many other schools across the state in keeping staffing levels up,” he said. “At least as of around Sunday night, about 20 percent of the staff was going to be out today.”
While some districts have switched to distance learning amid the staffing shortage, St. Jean said he doesn’t see that as an option for North Smithfield. He said they’re doing everything they can to keep the schools running, even as quarantine and isolation numbers are increasing among staff and students.
“We want to be in. We want to be in in-person,” he said.
In a separate e-mail last Friday, St. Jean updated families on the district’s new COVID-19 policies after the Rhode Island Department of Health released updated guidance the day before. Under the new rules, students and staff who test positive for COVID-19 are required to quarantine for five days instead of the previous 10 days if they are not showing any symptoms. In-school close contacts are not required to quarantine and may continue attending class if they do not show any symptoms, with an optional rapid test available upon request.
Student athletes, regardless of vaccination status, will be required to take a rapid test to continue participating in Rhode Island Interscholastic League sports if they come in contact with a COVID-19-positive person during the school day.