Superintendent of Johnston Schools Bernard DiLullo told the Sun Rise last week that the Rhode Island Department of Education’s date to provide feedback on potential reopening plans “is far too late” to make necessary preparations.
DiLullo presented the district’s three possible routes – a full reopening, partial in-person learning and entirely virtual learning – to the School Committee during its July meeting. His preference, and that of other districts with which he has communicated, is the middle option. He said it would allow the schools to distance students properly and cut down on the amount of kids roaming hallways and occupying classrooms.
Planning bus routes to coordinate all of the kids getting to their respective schools could prove confounding as well. With just two weeks to plan ahead, DiLullo said, “that’s a difficult feat to accomplish.”
“If, in fact, the state determines it’s a full return, we do want to make sure we have everything in place to allow students to come back safely and being able to be transported safely on a school bus,” DiLullo said. “Right now we’re being told there can only be one student on a seat on a school bus, which would require us to do some schedule adjusting regarding pick-ups and drop-offs for all of our students.”
He said the district is currently examining all possibilities and preparing for each of them, including what full and partial returns would look like for bus companies. DiLullo said that RIDE ultimately has the final say in what plans the district will follow for the school year, and the districts will have to follow suit.
“Our understanding of what’s going to happen on Aug. 17 is that in conjunction with the Rhode Island Department of Health, the decision is going to be made as to what is the safest route to go to return kids to school,” DiLullo said. “They’re going to let us know if it’s a full return, a partial return or we’re going to go back to primarily distance learning.”
While his conversations with other districts have found a consensus on partial in-person learning, he wasn’t overly confident that will be the final call.
“I think what’s going to happen with the state is that they will say full return and I think we’re going to be faced with a lot of challenges with that full return. I do,” DiLullo said. “Again, most districts have difficulty with that only because there’s a lot of logistics that need to be addressed. Our middle school would have 800 students returning to the middle school, so you’re talking about having to manage not only the travel within that building of 800 students but also common areas.”
He used lunchtime as just one example of where full in-person learning could go awry, as lunch would have to be provided both in the cafeteria and in classrooms to accommodate social distancing.
“You want to make sure that you’re social distancing, and everyone is wearing a mask and there’s sufficient time for cleanup for our custodial staff,” DiLullo said. “That’s why it would make much more sense to start out with a partial return, get our systems in place, get our systems in order, figure out how that’s going to work best and then move to a full return. It just seems like a much more logical approach.”
DiLullo said the district will have contingencies in place should a student or teacher test positive for coronavirus. He said that the Department of Health would be notified, as would any of the families whose children came into contact with the student or teacher.
He said there are “any number of options” for how schools address infections.
“They would then guide us in terms of what would need to happen,” DiLullo said. “So, it could be any number of options – again, you notify the families in terms of potential contact and then maybe they ask us to close down that classroom for a period of time, if in fact there’s been a lot of contact through the school, and other kids start testing positive, they may ask us to close down the school and move to virtual learning.”
DiLullo said regarding the third return plan, full distance learning, that his preference is to have students back in the classroom because it is the “most effective way” for them to learn. The balanced approach of students coming in on alternating days, with occasional virtual learning, at least allows them to have some interaction with teachers on a weekly basis.
“So half the group is in the classroom and the other half of the group is in the classroom virtually, so they’re seeing the same lessons happening, they’re seeing the interaction between the teachers and the students and the teacher can interact with them,” DiLullo said. “Not the best approach in terms of learning, but it’s better than everybody is out distance learning and they’re doing a Zoom meeting or a Google Meet meeting as opposed to being in a live classroom watching the instruction happening.”