DiLullo: Aug. 31 return date set for schools, but it won't look the same

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Superintendent of Johnston Schools Dr. Bernard DiLullo told the Sun Rise Wednesday morning that when in-person learning resumes later this year, school won’t be reverting back to pre-pandemic standards.

Gov. Gina Raimondo last week announced plans for students to return to classrooms under a unified statewide calendar starting on Aug. 31, but Johnston will be one of many districts spending the summer addressing the logistical and educational challenges of meeting that target date.

From having masks available to students to establishing “nursing suites” to isolate students who may come down with coronavirus symptoms, the halls of Johnston High will look different when the bell rings next.

“School is not going to be like it used to be. School is going to be different,” DiLullo said. “It could be lunch in classrooms as opposed to cafeterias, in smaller groups rather than larger-sized groups. It could be that we operate in pods where students stay with a particular group throughout the whole day and teachers move.”

DiLullo said that much like the decision to close schools and move online for the remainder of the year, superintendents only found out about the Aug. 31 reopening target from the Rhode Island Department of Education shortly before it was formally announced.

“So there wasn’t any previous discussion of that,” DiLullo said. “The superintendents had a conference with the governor [Tuesday], and the governor said she felt like she needed to make that announcement that quickly because people do need to plan for the upcoming school year and she wanted to give people enough notice and enough time to do that planning, so that’s why there was that quick announcement.”

DiLullo said he shares Raimondo’s goal of getting students back into classrooms, but the obstacles to doing that safely will be tough to clear. Using transportation as one example, DiLullo said that kids taking the bus would have to sit one to every seat, with every other seat vacant – a restriction he called “difficult.”

As for keeping students socially distanced, DiLullo said the high school’s classrooms are not “sufficiently large enough” to keep 22 to 28 kids 6 feet apart.

“It looks like in order to meet the ‘everyone back on Aug. 31’ suggestion or goal, we’re probably going to look at a combination of things,” DiLullo said. “It may be some distance learning, some in-person learning. It may be adjusted schedules. A lot of planning has to be put into place in order to meet that Aug. 31 goal.”

DiLullo said other superintendents around the state share his concerns about adhering to state guidelines and maintaining social distance, as they are mainly focused on the health and safety of at-risk students and staff.

“You want to be able to provide the same level of services to students at home as you do in the classroom,” DiLullo said. “You want to be able to safely protect kids in the classroom and protect staff people as well. We have vulnerable kids, we have vulnerable staff people that you want to make sure that their safety is protected. There’s a number of areas that we want to address that, again, schools are not used to addressing and we need to be very careful as we go forward.”

As he expects some initial hybrid of in-person and virtual learning, DiLullo said the district will endure many of the same challenges as the spring brought. With families going back to work, DiLullo said, “the question is who’s caring for the kid at home if they’re learning at home.”

When they are at school, the district will be prepared. DiLullo said the facilities crew has already gone to work on installing plexiglass enclosures around office clerks, and people will have to make appointments to come to the school rather than arriving unannounced.

“We’ve purchased hand sanitizers, so there’s plenty of hand sanitizers available. We’ve purchased infrared thermometers in case we have to take temperatures,” DiLullo said. “There’s a lot of facilities issues, there’s a lot of academic issues, there’s a lot of logistical issues regarding classrooms, but we’re going to be spending the summer working on it. We’ve established a committee to start looking at all of those areas.”

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