PROVIDENCE – For school administrators, the planning process to welcome students back to class each September is chaotic in the best of times.
They make sure Rhode Island’s increasingly aging buildings are ready for students and that all teachers have been hired. They process mountains of paperwork that includes everything from vaccination forms to copy machine contracts. Oh, and there’s a pretty good chance some kid is going to get on the wrong bus on the first day of school.
The planning will only grow more daunting this fall when 142,000 students return to school under dramatically different conditions because of the coronavirus. They may attend school in shifts. They may not be able to use large common spaces like cafeterias and gymnasiums, staying in small groups with their teachers throughout the day.
“The best-case scenario is everyone would return in some fashion,” said Ana Riley, a deputy commissioner for the state Department of Education. “I can’t tell you what exactly is going to happen. I think right now you'd need a crystal ball.”
While districts will be given flexibility to come up with their own reopening plans, Riley said the state will provide them with some “guardrails” to ensure they enforce social distancing regulations.
At the state level, Riley said her office is discussing plans using multiple scenarios, ranging from what happens if the state sees another large outbreak of the virus before schools begin, to how to handle individual coronavirus cases once students are in class.
In order to contain potential outbreaks, Riley said it’s likely that schools will have to consider keeping students in groups of no more than 20 or 25 students, and not allow them to interact with others during the day. It’s unclear if there will be an overall cap on the number of students who can be in school at the same time.
Riley, a former superintendent of Portsmouth schools, said her office will likely reopen elementary schools first, in part because younger students require more attention from adults than kids in middle and high school. As more parents return to work, Riley said the need to send elementary school students to school will become greater.
Once students are in school, the logistical challenges will only grow. How will teachers ensure that students have masks on at all time? What will bathroom breaks look like? How do you stop kindergarteners from touching everything, including each other?
“Think about the idea of mitigating risk for a five-year-old,” Riley said.
There are also plenty of unknowns, including the pressing question of how transmissible the disease is in children.
One study from a well-known German researcher found that “children may be as infectious as adults,” even if they aren’t experiencing harsh symptoms of the virus. But there was no definitive conclusion about whether they act as a source of infection.
"I still don't know if kids are super spreaders or viral dead ends,” said Dr. James McDonald, medical director at the Rhode Island Department of Health.
While older students are likely to have a better understanding of basic hygiene practices than elementary school students, their schools are set up so that they travel from class to class each day. Keeping students together in one group will be a challenge. And don’t expect many students to have hall passes.
Riley said one option that districts may explore is offering staggered school schedules.
“Can we have a group of kids that come in the morning and another group in the afternoon?” Riley said. “Or one week of distance learning and one week in school?”
At the local level, district and charter school leaders are just beginning to wrap their heads around fall planning.
Jeremy Chiappetta, the CEO of Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy, which serves more than 2,000 students from kindergarten to the 12th grade, said his administrative team is considering everything from a full reopening to continuing with distance learning. He said one key to reopening will be to ensure that schools have the proper personal protection equipment for both students and staff.
“And with thousands of schools across the country looking to reopen, the supply line pressure for items like soap, wipes, sanitizer, and infrared thermometers will be enormous,” Chiappetta said.
Jeannine Nota-Masse, the superintendent of Cranston schools, said she intends to convene a committee of administrators and teachers along with city leaders and community stakeholders to form her district’s reopening plans.
“There’s much to consider: buses, classroom space, passing times at middle and high schools, cafeterias, the vulnerability of staff who may be of advanced age, cleaning protocols, staff and kids with medical concerns,” Nota-Masse wrote in an e-mail. “The list goes on and on.”
No matter what happens, Nota-Masse said she fully expects the return to school will have an unusual look to it.
“Who would have imagined shopping for back-to-school masks?” Nota-Masse said.