School Committee reviews distance learning decision

Mon, 12/27/2021 - 7:00am

Superintendent Bob Gerardi gave a Covid update to the School Committee at its December 20 meeting and discussed the decision to switch to distance learning for the last week of school before Christmas break. He reported that nurses Liz Dyer and Linda Closter had performed 134 PCR Covid tests, as well as 180 rapid Covid tests, and he also said they expected to perform 50 more tests in the coming days. Unfortunately, multiple cases of Covid have been discovered across the various student pods. Additionally, several cases were reported in the adult population of the island in recent days.

The school medical team has been in frequent contact with the Block Island Medical Center, and Gerardi reported that consensus was reached among the medical professionals and the school administration that the best way to safely manage the school, protect the students and staff, and protect the community was to switch to distance learning for the last six days of the term leading into Christmas break.
Calling it a “hard decision,” Gerardi said he preferred to keep the kids in school, and had pushed to avoid switching to distance learning. But with the Block Island community experiencing a “third wave or blossom” Gerardi said the input and advice he received was consistent to “nip this in the bud.” By going to distance learning the school hopes to avoid a larger outbreak among the students and Block Island community.

Committee Member Persephone Brown said she was initially “surprised and disheartened,” but that with so much crossover among students, and the larger community seeing a rise in cases, distance learning makes the most sense.

One parent in attendance questioned why the school should have to close for Covid if the safety protocols are in place and are being followed properly. The parent questioned how one could keep the kids motivated to do their part, if the school ends up in distance learning anyway. “What’s the point of the pods, if we aren’t going to use them?” the parent asked.
The students are divided into “pods” of elementary, middle school, and high school. The idea is that the pods will not be in contact with each other, utilizing different entrances, different lunch areas, and so forth. Presumably, this would give the administration the ability to isolate a pod, in the event of positive cases within that pod, and send only that pod to distance learning. Unfortunately, in this instance, there were cases across pods.
School Committee Chair Jess Willi pointed out that even though the students are divided into pods, the teachers and staff are not, and many of the teachers have to cross the pods throughout the day. Art teacher Lisa Robb was in attendance and said that she had been in contact with all three of the positive cases in the school last week, and that she is also in contact with all the other students in the school.
And Robb is not the only one. Numerous teachers have classes with multiple pods, not to mention the crossing of pods that naturally occurs with siblings.

The parent asked why the school was not following the state guidelines on distance learning, as public schools in Rhode Island are continuing with in-person learning. Willi, Gerardi, and Nurse Liz Dyer all answered that the state guidelines allow school administrations to have a more stringent plan than the state requires. In this instance, the school is moving to distance learning while the state is not. Gerardi mentioned that the
school performs more Covid tests than the state requires as well.
Dyer spoke on the difficulties the school encounters with Covid protocols, saying the high school in particular “has trouble with mask compliance.” She also brought up the fact that not all students are vaccinated and not all students are able to even be tested. Parents have to sign a permission slip for testing, and not all parents have done so.
Willi said that the elementary kids who are eligible had recently received vaccines, and that could make it more viable to follow the state on distance learning. “But because we are such a small community, we have to take other things into consideration,” she said. She went on to explain that in addition to students who are unvaccinated, there are teachers who cannot get vaccinated and will have to take “medical exceptions” and miss school. “We already can’t get subs in this school,” she said. Gerardi had also mentioned the difficult task to “man the building,” with Covid cases on the rise in the community and in the school.

One community member exclaimed that the role of the school board is to teach, with Willi interjecting that the role of the school board is to set policy. Undeterred, the community member continued with her assertion that since taxpayers fund the school and it will be closed for 19 days (including regularly scheduled Christmas break and weekends), the citizenry of the island deserved a “tax write-off.” Calling it “taxation without
representation,” the community member further explained that it was an individual’s “right to die of Covid,” and that she wanted “a lawsuit,” presumably due to all the pain the school was causing. After calling the committee “sheeple,” she stormed out, wishing out loud that the newspaper was on hand to cover it.
Parents also asked how many cases were confirmed in the Block Island School and if the committee could disclose which pods had positive cases. The superintendent said that due to the small size of the school, they were not able to give that information out. “When class size is two to 13 [students], and you say you have a case, it identifies [the infected students].” Willi went on to explain that the school was following the advice of legal counsel on privacy rights. The attorneys told them that since the school is so small, the information cannot be shared. Willi also stated that the “number one priority” of the school committee and administration “is to keep the school open, and keep everybody safe.”
At this time, there is not a plan to continue distance learning after break, with students scheduled to return to class on January 3.