NEWPORT — The Newport School District’s reopening plan for the 2020-2021 school year will offer students a choice between returning to school for in-person instruction or full-time remote instruction.

On Thursday, the Newport School Board unanimously approved the district’s reopening plan, following a 90-minute presentation by district administrators.

Newport Superintendent Brendan Minnihan said the district wanted to give families a choice of instructional model while still prioritizing the health and safety of students and staff.

“There may have to be tweaks [to the in-school option] based on the level of student enrollment, and it may not be available for all grade levels or courses, but we’re feeling more and more comfortable that we’ll be able to make that work,” Minnihan said.

Sullivan County’s low rate of infection throughout the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic heavily influenced the district’s decision to resume full in-person instruction.

Sullivan County has only had 38 total confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus to date and only one that resulted in death. The county also has not reported any new cases in seven days.

Like other districts, Newport will have numerous health and safety policies to mitigate the risk of infection in the schools.

Schoolbound students in grades one through 12 will need to wear a mask when in hallways and common areas, including classrooms. Some classrooms may have a limited number of “mask free,” shielded work stations, and individual teachers may have individual classroom policies regarding masks.

Some teachers will have stricter mask requirements for students than others, based on their individual health concerns, Minnihan said.

Remote instructional education will be administered through either district teachers or Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS), an online charter school.

The remote learning option will be more structured than in the spring and require students to schedule their academics around the regular school day. All students participating in remote learning will have daily check-ins with their teachers and there will be more opportunities for group learning and collaboration with other students.

With the board’s approval of the plan, the next challenge for the district is figuring out the logistics.

The district is asking parents to notify the district by Aug. 12 whether their child will be attending school in-person or learning remotely.

Student schedules and class cohorts will hinge greatly on knowing the enrollments for the in-person and remote programs, Minnihan said.

The district aims to have staff the remote program with the district teachers whose health concerns will prevent their return to the school buildings. The staffing needs will depend not only on the number of students learning remotely but the academic levels and needs of the students

“We may need to pay a stipend to one of our retired teachers to provide a specialized course, [for example],” Minnihan told the board.

The high school population will pose particular challenges because of the number of students needing specific courses to meet their graduation requirements. But Curriculum Director Glancey said the district anticipates a number of high schoolers will choose the remote option, to reduce the number of students in the building. The high school also plans to redesign the high school class schedule to provide as broad a course selection as possible.

Though Aug. 31 will be the official start of school, Minnihan said the actual return date for students will be Sept. 8, after Labor Day.

The district will use the week of Aug. 31 to transition students back to school, bringing them into school in smaller groups to help them readjust.

“In addition to the academic struggles that students had with the remote instruction [in the spring], it’s also been a traumatic experience, from them being away from school so long,” Minnihan said.

The district has scheduled two meetings in August for families to ask questions about the reopening plan, one on Aug. 3 and a second on Aug. 8. Each session will be held in the gymnasium of Newport Middle High School from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. The district asks that families RSVP with the district and limit the number of family members attending to allow for as many families as possible under the state’s health and safety occupancy guidelines. Participants will also be required to wear a mask when entering and exiting the building.

To learn more about the district’s reopening plan, visit the district’s website at https://www.sau43.org.

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