WARWICK, RI — Tuesday night, the School Committee got a new vice president, a plan to replace both high schools, and a piece of Warwick Teachers Union president Darlene Netcoh’s mind.
“(The district) should have gone virtual for two weeks after (Jan. 1) whether people like to hear that or not,” Netcoh said as she excoriated state leadership on the COVID-19 pandemic, which began producing a surge in cases throughout the state in the midst of the holiday season.
As the holidays proceeded, Rhode Island’s percent positive rate climbed to 6.2 percent by Dec. 30. Last year, the percent positive rate measure widely considered for safe return to in-person schooling was set at below 5 percent. The threshold was set last fall on the advice of the country’s top virologist, Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Nonetheless, state and local officials continued in-person learning as break-through cases among even thrice-vaccinated people, predicted by experts with the Omicron variant, sickened increasing numbers, including Warwick Mayor Frank Picozzi, who has since recovered.
By the start of the New Year, with the percent positive rate at 7 percent, Warwick Veterans School and Winman School were forced into remote learning because too many teachers had fallen ill with COVID-19.
“They have abdicated their responsibility and have thrown the districts to the wolves,” Netcoh said, noting the COVID-19 tests and supplies which had been promised to the schools were insufficient to meet the schools’ needs.
A letter from Director of Buildings and Grounds Stephen Gothberg, who is himself fighting a COVID infection, pointed Warwick Schools’ plans for fixing its two high schools in a new direction.
RIDE: Replace, don’t renovate, high schools
Last May, the committee voted to approve the renovations for Pilgrim and Toll Gate High Schools. The committee’s Pilgrim plan included a two-story addition at the front of the building. The total cost would be $176.7 million. For Toll Gate, a $125.4 million project included a center courtyard which could serve as an interior food court/mall space with a skylight ceiling, which would also be used as a media center. Construction on each would last three years.
The Stage one submittal to RIDE was last September. Stage two is due on February 15. The initial submittal of the renovation concepts was done last July.
“RIDE’s feedback was immediately given, and negative,” Gothberg’s letter said. “RIDE did not agree with renovating of the high schools due to the difficulty in the phasing of construction and the fact that students would be impacted by construction for four years.”
RIDE suggested they “go back to the drawing board and consider building new high schools. This feedback was taken back to leadership both district and city and the team was given the green light to change direction and restart the process of going for new high schools instead of renovations. The team immediately switched gears and started from scratch.”
Input was gathered during meetings with administrators, teachers, department heads, and union leaders, for the new design concepts, Gothberg reported.
“I couldn’t be more pleased that after 51 years in this city of not building a new school, we’re on the precipice of perhaps doing something that is truly in the interest of the community and our children,” said David Testa, named School Committee Vice President earlier in the evening.
Cobden, who was named Chairwoman of the Committee once again Tuesday, said the new high school designs were “exciting” and thanked the members of the architectural and engineering firms for their “hard work.”
“I’m very excited to see where this goes,” Adams added.
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