WARWICK, RI — Warwick Schools are moving forward with a partial reopening plan for fall classes, without the authority to enforce mask-wearing, a crucial element of protection against COVID-19 spread.
Superintendent Phil Thornton has recommended the partial reopening of schools, one of the scenarios presented by the Rhode Island Department of Education for the fall.
Thornton informed the School Committee during Thursday night’s remote Zomm meeting that he will be holding discussions with administrative staff, members of the Warwick Teachers Union and WISE, and parents/guardians of each school building after RIDE provides feedback on the plan.
“We want to keep people informed routinely,” Thornton noted.
Thornton said he would not be submitting a plan for a full reopening RIDE offered as an option, noting it was “not a safe proposition.”
Masks will be provided to all students and staff at no cost. Signs will be posted throughout all the schools reminding staff and students of all CDC guidelines for masks, hand washing, and social distancing.
But, as members of the School Committee pointed out, the schools cannot force students to wear masks.
“How will we handle that?” asked School Committee Chairwoman Karen Bachus, suggesting moving a mask-objecting student into distance learning.
“As I understand it, we cannot deny the child the opportunity to be in school,” said Superintendent Phil Thornton.
“Be that as it may, how do we protect our teachers and our other students in a case, of a situation where a child can’t or won’t wear a mask,” Bachus asked
“There’s no mechanism as I understand it to police or mandate the mask wearing during the day,” Thornton said.
“That is going to be potentially, is going to be a pretty big obstacle, for teachers and parents of children who wear a mask and try to keep people safe,” Bachus said.
Bachus said the School Department needs a solution to protect mask-wearing students and teachers from those who won’t be wearing masks.
“I don’t want to see anybody die. I don’t want to see a teacher die. I don’t want to see students die. I don’t want to see an outbreak in Warwick. I couldn’t live with myself if that happens. We have a responsibility to protect our entire population.”
Testa asked about the rules for common areas, like hallways, where all students are required to wear the face covers. Classrooms, however, are not considered common areas in that case.
“It’s interesting how a classroom wouldn’t be considered a common area, because it still is,” Testa said.
Testa said that since the state says schools can’t enforce mask wearing, it comes down to the parents. He said without a medical waiver or an IEP, students should have to wear masks, he said.
“If a student is just being contrarian and saying, ‘I’m not going to wear a mask and you can’t force me,’ we’ve got a problem, and I don’t know what the answer is,” Testa said.
“It’s a matter of life and death,” said chairperson Karen Bachus.
Testa said the schools will have to wait and see how the mask compliance goes among the students in the fall.
Committee member Judy Cobden said she agreed with Testa about the few conditions excusing students from mask wearing, but, “We can’t watch things and see how they go. We either do it right from the beginning or we could have a serious problem,” she said.
“One day is too long,” Cobden said, “We don’t know this virus.”
Thornton said he and School Committee counsel attorney Andrew Henneous would discuss the issue and return with ideas during the August meeting.
Director of Special Services Jennifer Connolly said there are about 1,500 students in Warwick Schools with IEPs. She said adjusting all of their IEPS, none of which have provisions for masks, to address whether they can wear masks in school, would be a big task. She suggested asking the special education case manager to make those recommendations.
Masks or no, students would be split into two instructional groups in the preferred plan, Thornton said.
One group will meet in-person on Tuesday/Thursday and one group will meet in-person on Wednesday/Friday. Monday will be a professional development day so all students would be engaged in distance learning. The schools will also be deep cleaned on that day.
Thornton said he will present the written plan Friday and promote the plan to the community next week.