Newport This Week

School Committee Unsure of Fall Return to Classroom

At its May 12 Zoom meeting, the Newport School Committee faced the difficulties caused by all the unknowns arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, including if schools will reopen in September.

“I don’t think we’ll be back in September, from what I’ve been hearing,” said Raymond Gomes, School Committee chair.

Supt. Colleen Burns Jermain said she hopes for clarification from state officials next week.

Jermain said one important factor affecting whether schools will reopen in the fall is Gov. Gina Raimondo’s plan to reopen the economy. Should that step be taken, adults would return to work, making it more likely schools would reopen.

Budgeting also remains an issue. Committee member Louisa Boatwright said it is difficult to accurately project next year’s revenues. This year, Newport gave the district about $27 million towards its total budget of roughly $42 million. Due to state law, the city cannot reduce this amount, but there is little hope for the increase that school officials projected last winter.

The state granted Newport $12.5 million for the current fiscal year and had planned to increase that by $1.8 million. However, with Rhode Island facing a yawning budget gap, that increase is in doubt and, as Boatwright pointed out, the state is not obligated to “level fund” schools. Instead, it could cut the amount of support to Newport schools. Gomes said that layoffs would be discussed soon.

“There are a lot of unknowns at this point,” Jermain said, adding that any needs for teachers or support staff in new positions would come from within.

In other matters, the committee approved an extension of a contract with the Highlander Institute of Providence, which has worked with the district for the past four years helping teachers integrate technology into their lessons. All costs associated with the Highlander programs are funded by grants. Boatwright said that the company’s help has made it easier to shift to distance learning, as teachers and students were ready to teach and learn digitally.

The committee also listened to a presentation from Effective School Solutions, a New Jersey company, which provides clinicians to school systems to reduce the number of students who must be sent to special institutions for behavioral or disciplinary reasons. In their presentation, executives said that each such transfer costs, on average, $75,000, and the district sends between 20 and 40 students away each year. The company said it could keep four or five of these students within the system, and bring another three or four back. It would provide two full-time clinicians at Rogers High to work with these students, at a cost less than what Newport would pay to send them elsewhere.

The committee will discuss the proposal next month.

Finally, the committee passed on a new cell phone policy for the three public schools. Pell Elementary School students will not be allowed to have cell phones at school, while Thompson Middle School students may bring them to school but must keep them in their lockers.

Rogers High students can keep their cell phones with them, but may use them only during lunch or when they are going to their next class. Phone usage will not be allowed in the classroom.

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