Walkthroughs cleared as Johnston schools come close to reopening

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Superintendent of Johnston Schools Bernard DiLullo said that two state teams conducted walkthroughs at each of the eight schools in town last week, as the district clears another hurdle on the way to reopening.

During his interview with the Sun Rise last week, DiLullo said the district was able to secure its inspections early. Gov. Gina Raimondo announced during her Sept. 1 press conference that groups comprised of representatives from the Department of Health, National Guard and other state agencies would conduct walkthroughs at every school across the state.

DiLullo said the teams were present from about 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and – while they did not go into every room – “did look at samples of rooms” and looked around for proper ventilation and airflow.

“They visited some classrooms, took a look at the seating arrangements, took a look at the window ventilation, assessed the nurse’s offices to ensure we had separate offices,” DiLullo said during a phone interview on Wednesday. “They gave us a preliminary written report where they said our plans for the ventilation would be that, rooms that had air conditioners, leaving the air conditioning on, opening windows and opening doors. Also rooms that don’t have air conditioning would have box fans that would circulate the air in the classrooms.”

DiLullo said the district has ordered new filters for classrooms to conform to higher standards, and that the buildings are all “very clean at this point.” He said rooms have received fresh coats of paint as well.

He added that the middle and high school returns, which are a gradual phase-in spanning from the first day on Sept. 14 to early October, will be evaluated every month depending on “the behavior of the virus at the time.”

Elementary students will return strictly by grade, while middle and high school students will return by level last name, either A-L or M-Z depending on the day. The superintendent said sixth and ninth grades will return first, with schools working their way up to eighth and 12th grades, respectively.

“I think there’s a lot of considerations in terms of the intricacies of school,” DiLullo said. “The first and foremost is the safety of everybody, staff, students and teachers. I think it’s important to make sure that you're doing everything you possibly can to reopen schools, and I think we are.”

DiLullo said there’s been a “mixed” reaction to Raimondo’s green light for a full reopening from other superintendents across the state. He referenced that some districts, such as Warwick, are opting to begin the year with full distance learning. However, most superintendents are also taking the Johnston approach – returning students by grade level and slowly acclimating everyone to the new normal.

“I think it’s critical that we get kids back as much as we can because – while some kids did well with distance learning – that was difficult for other kids to not have the advantage of being in front of a teacher for a length of time during the course of the day and not being able to focus as much as you can in terms of being in a classroom as opposed to being at home in front of a computer screen,” DiLullo said. “I think that’s difficult for a lot of kids, particularly our younger kids.”

Schools open their doors on Sept. 14, and it will be a hectic next few days in Johnston. Schedules went out to parents on Monday, and teachers will have professional development during which they will be kept up to date on proper protocols.

“[That] will include a segment on managing the classroom with safety in mind and the procedures that need to be taken, such as 6-feet distance, washing hands frequently throughout the course of the day, wearing masks, going outside for masks breaks. School is going to look a lot different to the kids,” DiLullo said.

He also provided an update on the progress of a potentially new elementary school in town, saying the project manager and contractor have been participating in focus groups to understand what the town would like to see.

DiLullo said they met with a wide variety of groups – from instructional to safety and facilities – and some patterns have begun to emerge. Most folks want to see upgraded science labs, areas for students to congregate and better technological features.

“These were all focus groups to talk about what we want our schools to look like. Not only the potential for a new elementary school, but also the middle and the high school upgrades,” DiLullo told the Sun Rise. “All of those issues came up in those focus groups, and the next step is the project manager and the contractor will start to put that all together and some proposals around what needs to be done in each building and in a potentially new school.”

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