Dear North Smithfield Families and Staff,
I want to start off by wishing everyone a safe February Vacation and share a few updates.
Last Friday, we had to switch our middle school and high school to Distance Learning due to an exterior leak in the underground propane system that fed the middle school ovens and science labs. Despite the dramatic flames, people may have seen in the bus loop overnight and early in the morning, this was a controlled burn to empty the propane tank to begin repairs. I need to emphasize that at no point were our schools, students, or staff in danger.
Not only did we have the leak repaired, but we also used this opportunity to implement other modifications and safety upgrades. The new systems have been fully inspected and will be back online shortly.
February Vacation and Travel:
In previous years, our nurses always welcomed the February vacation as a firewall against the spread of the seasonal flu. We hope everyone will continue to practice caution during this week.
We need to remind people that if you are traveling during this time, travel warnings and quarantine restrictions still apply: https://covid.ri.gov/covid-19-prevention/travel-tofrom-ri
Up until Thanksgiving, we opened grades PK-6, grade 9, and any student with an IEP and/or a 504 Plan to four days a week in-person. We were on a roll. The period of spikes between Thanksgiving and the New Year greatly slowed our progress, especially where entire grade levels were concerned.
During this “pause” we did, however, prioritize additional students who were either on full-time Distance Learning, or in one of the hybrid grades, and offered families four days a week in-person instruction. Thirty students either switched from full Distance Learning to in-person learning or opted to increase their in-person days.
Grade 12 is next. We are currently surveying seniors and their parents about their choice to expand instruction to four days a week or remain on full-time distance learning. This survey will help us to better assess capacity. Depending on the family and students’ responses, we may need to reschedule some students into alternate classes or sections to balance class sizes, find alternative locations for classes with larger enrollments in order to create more space for social distancing, and/or make adjustments to transportation, cafeteria assignments, and movement within the school.
November and December were difficult months with contact tracing and the sheer numbers of staff and students who had to quarantine. Staffing classrooms on a daily basis was and is an on-going challenge. Thank you to all our teachers, instructional assistants, and administrators for your hard work and flexibility in keeping our schools open.
The Distance Learning week after the Winter Vacation was a welcome health break. We had comparatively few positive cases when we returned.
Unfortunately, it has not stayed this way. At the end of last week, for example, we had 7 students and 3 staff who had tested positive with an additional 53 students and 19 staff under quarantine.
Despite this mini-outbreak, we hold that our protocols and procedures are effective as to date, transmissions of the virus appear to have all occurred outside of school and not from within our walls.
Our goal remains to have all students returning to full in-person instruction.
We will be expanding our in-school BinaxNOW asymptomatic screenings. As the weather gets warmer, as more staff and people in the community receive vaccinations, and as guidance from the CDC and RI Department of Health is updated (with hopefully more relaxed restrictions), we will continue to evaluate the remaining Hybrid grades along with eliminating the Monday Distance Learning day.
For the time being, we are still under restrictions that guide social distancing, classroom, and school layout and limit bus ridership capacity, cafeteria seating, and gathering sizes and locations.
We need everyone’s help maintaining a consistent schedule with the students. This is particularly true with the older students. Originally we required a quarter by a quarter commitment to full Distance Learning. After school reopened and based on numerous family requests, we relaxed this commitment and allowed students to move in and out of Distance Learning. Unfortunately, we are now seeing Distance Learning being used by some as a convenience and not as a health or medical necessity. For example, on days students are supposed to be in school, we have seen some instead attend classes online because they overslept. We have some student-athletes who have switched to Distance Learning and later learned that they did so because they did not want to increase their chances of being quarantined and missing a portion of the season.
With this in mind, and based on phone calls, emails, and conversations with parents, students, and staff, I’d like to make the following observation: The changes and cancellations brought by COVID are difficult on our students. As adults, no matter the pressures we feel, the weight of our responsibilities, or how tired we are, we need to remember to remain positive and consistent and not unintentionally contribute to their disappointment, anxiety, or uncertainty. For our children and students, we need to project positivity, engage their interests, and continue to nurture their natural curiosity and creativity. During a pandemic, in the cold and grey of winter, it is easy to forget to just let go and play and laugh with the kids.
Everyone, please have a happy and safe February Vacation. Play, laugh, and anticipate the warmer and better days ahead.
Michael St. Jean, Superintendent