School welcomes students back with a test

Florida, New Jersey considered “hot spot” states
Thu, 02/18/2021 - 5:15pm

Just as the Feb. 8 School Committee meeting was about to adjourn, Superintendent Mike Convery threw out an idea for the committee to consider. “I’m blindsiding you,” he said, apologizing for the lack of notice. His idea? To test students for Covid-19 before in-person classes resume after the February break.

Students are scheduled to return from vacation on Monday, Feb. 22, but school that day will be conducted by distance learning. That will give Nurse Practitioner Liz Dyer the opportunity to test as many students and staff as possible. Testing will be offered on Sunday, Feb. 21, and on Monday, Feb. 22, and students will return to the classroom – if it’s safe – on Tuesday, Feb. 23.

Principal Kristine Monje said that a similar strategy was used after the December holidays. “When people came [back to school] after New Year’s, we had one positive test,” she said. “That positive case could have ramped through the whole school, but we caught it quick enough.”

Monje also stressed that even if people traveling on vacation were extremely careful themselves, they could find themselves inadvertently in a situation that was crowded, and where there might not be mask-wearing or other adequate preventive measures.

As of Feb. 15, the Rhode Island Department of Health’s web-site still has several states listed as “hot spots” for the disease – states that have positive rates greater than five percent. R.I. residents returning from those states must either self-quarantine for 10 days, or receive a negative result from a test taken within 72 hours before arrival in Rhode Island. Once in the state, you may stop quarantining if you receive a negative test while here.

The states classified as hot spots are scattered all over the country. None of the New England states are on the list, nor is New York. New Jersey, however, is on the list, as are Florida, Georgia, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.

February break is a popular time for students and their families to travel, and many times, families will try to extend their vacations for a few days. With distance learning now common, Monje told the school committee that she was having to do a lot of “decision making.”

When the school year started, distance learning had to be offered for all those who felt uncomfortable physically going into the school. And, of course, the school has had to go back and forth between in-school learning and distance learning as circumstances arose.

But with the possibilities, come the opportunities. Some parents are thinking they can extend their vacations by a few days, and just have their kids do distance learning. Without the distance learning, that would be considered an absence. Parents also have the option to set up “home schooling” in advance for extended trips out of town.

Then there is another scenario – participation in distance learning for an extended period of time while the family is at another domicile. The possibility, said Monje, “puts things in conflict.” Before distance learning, when you physically left a school district, you matriculated into another where you were living. Now, with distance learning possible, kids can technically remain in their home district, while living in another state or country, but is that fair to taxpayers?

Monje would like the School Committee to have a discussion about the matter and come up with a clearer policy. What is appropriate for high-school-aged students is not the same for elementary or middle school students.

“As kids get younger,” said Monje, “they have a harder time attaching to distance learning.” She added that sometimes she had to make a “moral” decision, but be fair as well. It was quite a different situation if distance learning was requested for a class that already had a few distant learners than for a class where there otherwise would be none.

“There’s so many different situations that happen,” said Monje. I don’t know if we’ll ever come up with a policy that will fit everything.” While she hoped that the school wouldn’t be “in this boat” next year, at this point, nothing can be taken for granted.

“It seems like a really complicated situation,” said school committee member Ann Hall.

“It’s tricky,” said Monje. “Sometimes you have to draw a line in the sand.”

“It’s a pickle,” said committee Chair Jess Willi.

Committee approves 2022 budget

The School Committee, after several meetings, has finalized and adopted its budget for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2022. After reducing estimates initially made for the health and dental benefits lines, and adding and subtracting various items, the increase in the overall tax allocation being requested from the Town of New Shoreham is 3.7 percent higher than the current fiscal year. That percent equates to an increase of $192,129.

The town is limited by state law, across all its departments and functions, including grants made to outside agencies like the Block Island Medical Center, to a four percent increase in the amount collected from taxpayers in any given fiscal year.

The School Committee will be sending its requested budget to the Town Council by way of the town finance director and town manager, who all may, or may not, make further tweaks.