The Rhode Island Department of Education will review the submitted plans, and provide feedback by the end of the month, at which point, the plans are expected to be released publicly. School is set to start one month later, on August 31st, according to the new statewide school calendar adopted after the COVID-pandemic forced schools to close in March.

The plans are expected to lay out a litany of new protocols, from when and where masks are required, to the number of students on a bus, to the modification of classrooms to provide for social distancing. School districts were expected to design flexible plans for the fall return, providing for a number three scenarios, full, partial, and limited return to in-person learning.

State education and health officials will determine which reopening plan schools should follow come September. 

Most draft plans are not yet publicly available, but several districts have provided overviews.

In Lincoln, for instance, school officials are proposing 50 percent capacity for all school buildings for the start of the year, even if the state determines that full in-person learning is feasible.

In Providence, the state’s largest school district, tiered scenarios progressively reduce the number of students in buildings, depending on the severity of community spread of COVID-19. If it is deemed safe, all students may be able to return to school buildings. In a partial in-person scenario, K-8 students would continue to enter the buildings, with high school students working remotely on alternating schedules. 

In Bristol-Warren, no full, in-person return to school will not be adopted for middle and high school students, because space limitations would make social distancing impossible. 

State guidelines call for grouping students in pods of up to 30 depending on the reopening scenario. Those groups will be expected to stay together for much of the school day in the case of elementary and middle schools. Stable groups are recommended for high school students should full, in-person school return. In limited and partial scenarios, if stable groups are impossible, school capacity should be reduced. 

These groups may be assigned specific bathrooms, or lunch areas. 

The plans are also expected to cover the extensive cleaning procedures necessary for an in-person return to school buildings. That includes the disinfecting of highly trafficked surfaces, hands-on spaces like labs and libraries, and expectations for hand sanitizing and washing. 

Teachers and parents are conflicted about going back into schools, but say they hope to avoid a repeat of spring’s distance learning scenario, which was taxing on families and educators. 

In the Bristol-Warren district, a survey of families found more than a third were uncomfortable with a full return to school, and nearly two thirds were uncomfortable with a full return to online classes. 

Teachers say they fear for their safety, and some don’t feel they’ve been provided quality options for continuing to teach remotely. Nationwide polling from the teacher’s union National Association of Teachers, found about half felt concerned about returning. 

NEA-Rhode Island President Larry Purtil says he believes that number to be about the same in Rhode Island. NEARI is the state’s largest teacher’s union. 

Several districts are creating online-only plans, reserved for teachers and students who may have underlying health conditions that make it risky for them to return to class. However it’s unclear whether students and teachers who simply do not feel comfortable returning to school will be allowed to make use of that option. 

All these plans will likely be costly, and ultimately infeasible without a major infusion of cash from the federal government, according to Timothy Duffy, the head of the Rhode Island Association of School committees.

“Whatever plans they draw up need to account for student safety and employee safety,” said Duffy. “And, you know, there's a massive dollar number attached to that.” 

The national School Superintendents Association estimates reopening with new protocols will cost an average district more than $1.7 million. In their assessment an average district has about 3,600 students. Providence has nearly 24,000. 

Congress is currently considering another federal stimulus, as the COVID pandemic continues, that could include $175 billion earmarked for reopening schools.