NEWPORT — While remaining cautiously optimistic about the pandemic, Newport school principals spoke glowingly on Thursday about the district’s first week of operations with students back in classrooms full-time, while crediting a community-wide effort for a successful rollout.
The Newport School District, with a total enrollment of approximately 1,000 students in grades pre-K to 12, is the largest district in Sullivan County to open the 2020-2021 school year with full in-person instruction. The district’s plan provides all families a choice of either fully in-person or fully remote instruction, with the remote instruction being administered by designated district teachers.
On Thursday — the third day of the new school year — principals reported to the Newport School Board that despite some challenges, the rollout of new health and safety policies and strategies have not only been effective but, in some cases, improved school operations.
“We’re really on the frontier here for making this happen in this environment,” Richards Elementary School principal Phil Banios said. “I know I may sound like Mr. Sunshine but when you think about our situation in August and mid-summer and what we had to put in place, [the district plan] is going to have a positive educational experience in our building and will work for parents in terms of systems and routines.”
“We have to acknowledge the challenges,” said Middle School Principal Thomas Ronning. “But we also have to acknowledge all the wonderful things going on, from teachers stepping up to fill in roles to parents [making contributions].”
Newport is implementing similar policies as districts whose classrooms are operating at half capacity under a hybrid instructional model. Newport students are screened and given temperature checks prior to entering their building and required to wear masks while in the building. Classrooms and other shared are set-up to provide three feet of space per student or physical barriers such as plexiglass to catch droplets emitted through talking, coughing or sneezing.
To prevent student clustering, Newport has completely reworked morning arrivals and departures by creating new routes for vehicles and staggering classroom dismissals.
Some of these ideas have actually improved upon the school’s pre-pandemic system, Banios said.
For example, to safely accommodate students in the classrooms, teachers needed to remove “the clutter,” such as nonessential furniture, Banios said. While these sacrifices were understandably hard for many teachers, it resulted in more space as well as less distractions for students.
At the high school, students are taking more ownership to clean up after themselves and even proposing suggestions to remedy continuing issues such as clustering in the main office.
“Our approach [to the policies] is that this isn’t punitive but what we all have to do to be together,” Newport High School principal Shannon Martin explained. “And they’ve really embraced that, whether it’s the staff or students.”
Ronning noted that the community’s understanding of the school challenges amid the pandemic is visible in the patience and acceptance of families with the transition and the attentiveness of district administrators to challenges within the schools.
With the Middle School facing a shortage of classroom teachers, Ronning praised the SAU for regularly checking in with him and scheduling interviews over Labor Day weekend to fill a critical teacher vacancy.
“When you see people going above and beyond it’s an incredible feeling,” Ronning said.
But school districts potentially looking at Newport’s model for their own transition to full in-person instruction might also consider the challenges, as well as key components of Newport’s plan.
Importantly, Newport’s in-person option has an enrollment limit, based on individual classroom capacity and teachers. Many classrooms are at maximum capacity now, yet new families are still enrolling students into Newport.
Newport School District SAU43 Education Director Patrice Glancey said there have been 87 new student enrollments this school year, including many over the last few weeks.
Many of these new enrollments have been placed in the remote program because of lack of classroom capacity.
Banios said the student participation in remote learning is becoming too much for its three remote-instruction teachers to manage.
“Even though we have three full-time, experienced and high-quality teachers their student numbers are high” Banios said. “We may need to [eventually] break the students into smaller groups because 20-plus students are a lot to handle in a remote model.”
Meeting the needs of both in-person and remote learning populations also causes challenges for special education, Glancey said. Newport has over 200 students with individualized education plans (IEPs), each of whom requires scheduled meetings with the student, parents and the educational team.
“It is pulling case managers in one direction when they are also trying to get to know the students,” Glancey said.
Glancey said that despite the challenges the district has so far scheduled IEP meetings for about 75% of the students.