School committee reviews distance learning decision

Superintendent Bob Gerardi provided the school committee with an update on Covid at its Dec. 20 meeting and discussed the decision to switch to distance learning for the last week of school before the Christmas vacation. He reported that nurses Liz Dyer and Linda Closter had carried out 134 Covid PCR tests, as well as 180 rapid Covid tests, and he also said they expected to carry out 50 more tests in the coming days. Unfortunately, several cases of Covid have been discovered in the various student modules. Additionally, several cases have been reported in the island’s adult population in recent days.

The school medical team has been in frequent contact with Block Island Medical Center, and Gerardi said consensus has been reached among medical professionals and school administration that the best way to run the school safely, protect students and staff, and protect the community was to switch to distance learning for the last six days of term leading up to the Christmas holidays.
Calling it a “difficult decision”, Gerardi said he preferred to keep the children in school and had pushed to avoid switching to distance learning. But with the Block Island community experiencing a “third wave or bloom”, Gerardi said the feedback and advice he received was consistent in “nipping this in the bud”. By going to distance learning, the school hopes to avoid a greater outbreak among students and the Block Island community.

Committee member Persephone Brown said she was initially “surprised and discouraged” but that with so much crossover between students and the wider community seeing an increase in cases, distance learning is the more logical.

A parent present questioned why the school should close for Covid if safety protocols are in place and being followed correctly. The parent wondered how one could keep the children motivated to do their part, if school was ending with distance learning anyway. “What good are the pods, if we’re not going to use them?” asked the parent.
The students are divided into “pods” of primary, middle and high school. The idea is that the modules will not be in contact with each other, using different entrances, different lunch areas, etc. Presumably, this would give the administration the ability to isolate a module, in the event of positive cases within that module, and only send that module to distance learning. Unfortunately, in this case, there have been instances in multiple pods.
School committee chair Jess Willi pointed out that while students are divided into pods, teachers and staff are not, and many teachers have to go through pods throughout the day. Art teacher Lisa Robb was present and said she had been in contact with the school’s three positive cases in the past week and was also in contact with all other students at the school.
And Robb isn’t the only one. Many teachers have classes with multiple modules, not to mention the module crossover that naturally occurs with siblings.

The parent questioned why the school was not following state guidelines on distance learning as Rhode Island public schools are continuing in-person learning. Willi, Gerardi and nurse Liz Dyer all responded that state guidelines allow school authorities to have a stricter plan than required by the state. In this case, the school switches to distance learning while the state does not. Gerardi mentioned that the
the school is also doing more Covid testing than the state requires.
Dyer spoke about the school’s struggles with Covid protocols, saying the high school in particular is “struggling to comply with masks.” She also touched on the fact that not all students are vaccinated and not all students can even be tested. Parents must sign a consent form for the test, and not all parents have done so.
Willi said eligible elementary school children had recently received vaccines, which could make the state’s tracking of remote learning more viable. “But because we’re such a small community, we have to take other things into consideration,” she said. She went on to explain that in addition to unvaccinated students, there are teachers who cannot get vaccinated and will have to take “medical exceptions” and miss school. “We already can’t get replacements at this school,” she said. Gerardi had also mentioned the difficult task of “managing the building”, with Covid cases on the rise in the community and at school.

A 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 her claim that since taxpayers fund the school and it will be closed for 19 days (including Christmas holidays and regularly scheduled weekends), the citizens of the island deserved a “tax deduction”. Calling it “taxation without
representation,” the community member further explained that it was an individual’s “Covid right to die” and that she wanted “a lawsuit,” likely due to all the pain school was causing. . After calling the committee “sheep,” she stormed out, wishing out loud that the newspaper was there to cover her.
Parents also asked how many cases had been confirmed at the Block Island school and whether the committee could disclose which groups had positive cases. The superintendent said that due to the small size of the school, they were unable to provide this information. “When the 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 taking advice from legal counsel on privacy rights. The lawyers told them that since the school is so small, the information cannot be shared. Willi also said the “number one priority” of the school committee and administration “is to keep the school open and keep everyone safe.”
At this time, there are no plans to continue distance learning after the break, with students expected to return to class on January 3.