It won’t be the conventional first day of school for new Johnston High School Principal Donna Pennacchia.
In any other time, Pennacchia would be at the door greeting hundreds of Panthers as they prepared for another year of classes, dances, sporting events and other staples of high school life.
The coronavirus pandemic has turned 2020 on its head. Instead, Pennacchia is working closely with her staff, Superintendent of Schools Bernard DiLullo and his administration to ensure that students can be brought back safely.
DiLullo told the Sun Rise Wednesday afternoon that Pennacchia has been an “excellent” assistant principal who took charge of curriculum work at Johnston High.
“Donna takes a great interest in all students and her main goal is to ensure that all students succeed regardless of their ability,” DiLullo said. “She’s someone who we have a lot of confidence in that will continue to lead the high school toward higher achievement levels and pathway programs as well.”
Gov. Gina Raimondo, who delayed the start of school by two weeks, will announce the next steps for school reopening at a press conference on Monday. It will allow districts around the state two weeks to prepare before schools are slated to open their doors once again.
“We are of course preparing, the district itself is really preparing for having all the PPE that we need,” Pennacchia said. “All of the cleaning and the cleaning supplies, and anything that has to do with cleanliness. We’re also making sure to go through the building, and there are certain guidelines we have to follow depending on which scenario or plan approval we get from the Rhode Island Department of Education or the governor, and we are following all of the Department of Health guidelines.”
Pennacchia, the former assistant principal, found out on Aug. 3 that close colleague Dennis Morrell would be leaving his post for the same position at Bristol-Warren Middle School. She applied for the position and interviewed for it soon after, receiving and accepting the job offer just 10 days later.
Prior to her time in Johnston, Pennacchia taught in and stewarded the math department at Scituate High School and had 23 years of teaching experience.
“First, of course, I was excited,” Pennacchia said regarding how she felt taking over as principal. “I had different feelings. I loved working with Dennis Morrell. He was a wonderful mentor to me, because I had come in with and my other administrator Mr. [Michael] Mancieri. We all came in as a team four years ago, and it was my first year as an assistant principal when we first came.”
Pennacchia continued: “I was sad that he was leaving, but I’m happy that I was able to take the position and I’m excited and looking forward to the school year. Unfortunately, I wish it was a little more normal than it is right now.”
Pennacchia said she wants to bring some stability to the Johnston High community. She said that “every day is a challenge” because the future remains murky, but she promised a safe and welcoming environment for Johnston students no matter what their return looks like.
“I feel like myself and the other assistant principal, they know us,” Pennacchia said. “I’d like to see some stability for these kids. I also hope that when we can meet again, not just through distance learning, to just be there for them … I always prepare that the kids will come back at some point and they will come back to a school that is safe and inviting for them.”
The 2020-21 school year will be far from the usual, as Johnston awaits which plan the state will advise it to follow. The district submitted three plans. The first included preparations for a full, in-person return; the second proposal dealt with a partial, staggered in-person approach; and the final possibility tackled full distance learning.
DiLullo has said before he prefers the second option, which would allow students to still have a personal connection with their teachers but prevent all of them from being in the school at once.
Pennacchia agreed, saying that while she would prefer to have all the kids back, she has to be “realistic” and advocated the hybrid method to start out.
“I always want the kids to come back all together at once, but I need to be realistic and I know that I feel the safest way right now, if we’re going to have the kids come back to school, which I know is the best for the kids and the best for us,” Pennacchia said.
Pennacchia said that students experiencing anxiety about the return can speak with support service faculty, social workers, teachers and administrators. Parents also have the option of speaking with their kids and reaching out to Pennacchia or a guidance counselor to opt for distance learning.
The decision isn’t binding either.
“We don’t need any kind of doctor’s note or anything like that, they don’t have to commit to a specific period of time for distance learning, so if they decided to come in and they felt uncomfortable, they could opt for distance learning even after they’re already here,” Pennacchia said. “If they opt for distance learning and they change their minds, they can opt to come back to school. They just have to let us know.”
During her tenure, Pennacchia said she would like to expand the school’s pathways program, and be more communicative to Johnston High School families about the “many wonderful things that we do” and “how much we have to offer the kids.”
She also touched on the legacy of her predecessor, with whom she worked closely for many years and saw one theme stand out in his style.
“I think Dennis’s legacy is that it was always – for him, even at the middle school, because he was our middle school principal before that – it was always about the kids,” Pennacchia said. “He loved the kids. He knew every single one of those kids’ names, he knew everything about the kids. For him, that was the principal that he was. It was always about the kids.”