CUMBERLAND — The School Committee has begun to implement school field trip changes prompted by former Commissioner of Education Ken Wagner’s advisory to that effect, but is hoping that local General Assembly members can win a change mitigating their impact.
School Committee Chairman Paul DiModica said the panel moved last week to remove the school department’s sanction on two upcoming field trips as a result of the former commissioner’s advisory resulting in the cancellation of at least one of the planned trips.
The town’s legislators have sent a letter to Wagner’s replacement, Commissioner Angelica M. Infante-Green, seeking a clarification of the new policy from the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) and how it should be applied to school activities in the coming school year.
“Districts are eager to make sure their policies and practices regarding field trips align with existing requirements,” the legislators, including Sen. Ryan W. Pearson, D-Dist. 19, and Sen. Roger A. Picard, D-Dist. 20, wrote. “Unfortunately, several are considering canceling all trips in their entirety for the upcoming academic year out of an abundance of caution, which would only hurt our students. Our hope is that, with your assistance we can avoid that,” they wrote.
The affected trips in Cumberland are a trip a high school teacher planned to lead to Spain and Portugal over the April school vacation beginning April 15, 2020, and a trip for local middle school students to Washington D.C. that is organized every year which would have departed on the Friday before Columbus Day weekend and had students back to school on Tuesday, according to DiModica.
The teacher planning the Spain and Portugal trip may still take students on that excursion, since it was planned for the vacation time and does not involve any missed days. The teacher will have to secure private insurance for the trip from the travel company as a result of the school department’s sanction being removed, DiModica explained.
“The trip would not be covered by school department insurance,” he said of the need to secure private insurance instead.
The trip to Washington poses a different problem, since both teacher chaperons and the students would be taking a day out of school to participate. The new field trip rules do not allow teachers to be paid while participating in such trips, and they must instead take sick or personal time to cover their absences from school, according to DiModica. Students who go would also be counted absent as a result of the trip not being a school sanctioned activity, he said.
As a result that trip has been canceled and students who signed up to go will be refunded the money paid for the trip by its tour company, DiModica said.
There are other planned trips in the coming year, such as the annual trips elementary school children make to a zoo, and DiModica said an attempt is being made to see if the school PTOs can cover the costs for the visits while the school department includes the required bus travel as a trip made as part of the bus’ regular daily assignments. The bus would need to be back to the school for its regular afternoon runs if that scenario were used, according to DiModica.
“That is where it stands for now unless the commissioner takes action,” DiModica said.
In the meantime, DiModica said School Committeeman Mark Fiorillo plans to hold a meeting of the policy subcommittee to begin work on a completely revised field trip policy that takes into account the commissioner’s advisory and recommendations from the Rhode Island Association of School Committees on how it should be implemented.
“Town Councilman Robert Shaw is urging parents to contact their state representatives and elected officials to let them know we really want them to change this policy set by the former commissioner of education,” DiModica said.
On Tuesday Pearson, who represents Cumberland and Lincoln, said the former commissioner’s ruling has affected any field trip that requires students to be charged a fee to participate.
“It has certainly become an issue in Cumberland but it is really an issue statewide,” Pearson said.
Pearson added that he believes it was unfortunate that Wagner issued the advisory as he departed for a post with Brown University and left it to his successor, Infante-Green, to work out its implementation.
Infante-Green is currently busy with RIDE’s concerns with the state of the Providence School District but will be asked to provide clarification on what local districts should doing with their field trip policies, according to Pearson.
“It is unfortunate that Ken Wagner left this on her plate but it is going to have to be dealt with,” Pearson said.
What RIDE will do about the policy change remains to be seen. Pearson said the state education department does have the authority to issue a clarification of how the policy should be handled.
“We wrote the letter to the commissioner because we are seeing some real world applications of the advisory on the ground and I certainly don’t support that,” Ryan said of the trips that have already been canceled.
Picard, who represents Cumberland and Woonsocket, said he too is concerned about the implementation of Wagner’s advisory.
“That is creating some funding issues for field trips unless you can figure out a way to hold them without charging the students,” he said.
A clarification of the policy would be a start, the senator noted, and if a further change is needed the General Assembly could take that up when it resumes session in January.
“We could look at it when we come back if it requires new legislation,” Picard said
It may be possible for a PTO and PTA group to manage the funding, but Wagner’s policy has raised many questions around the state as to whether field trips can even be organized, the senators noted.
“They are the ones who made the ruling and they could augment it or modify this if they want to,” Picard said.
Follow Joseph Nadeau on Twitter @JNad75