It’s almost a Rhode Island tradition that schools are the news story of the summer, but this year it’s for a different reason. Governor Gina Raimondo announced in June that she expects all students in Rhode Island to receive in-person instruction at the start of the school year. COVID-19 is still endemic in American life, and at the end of this month more than 100,000 students will return for their education. In prior years, public schooling was facing a variety of crises: ranging from funding problems to bussing issues and aging building stock that in some cases were literally making students and staff sick. Compounding all these issues now is the omnipresent threat of the coronavirus. There is a distinct feeling of unease across the state this month, and it’s not hard to see why.
Districts were expected to hand in three plans each on July 17. For the first time in state history, all districts would be following a state-mandated calendar. The first plan required the districts to provide in-person learning for all students, with measures to protect students and staff from coronavirus. Schools had to come up with mask recommendations and cleanliness requirements, all while maintaining educational equity. In the second plan, districts had to make provisions for distance learning, where all students would learn online through some kind of video classroom system. The final plan was to be a hybrid of the first two, with some students learning from home and some students learning in school. Here’s a selected summary of them:
Planned If We Do, Planned If We Don’t
Unusually, Providence Public School District (PPSD) provided plans for four scenarios, breaking the hybrid plan into two. The district has guidelines for limited in-person learning and partial in-person learning. Upfront in the PPSD’s plans is increasing the bell times. Prior to COVID, the PPSD system ran on two different start times. In order to increase access to transportation, PPSD has opted for three start times in the upcoming year: 7:30am, 8:30am and for elementary schools, 9:30am. Kindergarteners will be placed in the closest school to their home, with students still allowed the option of walking or driving to school. Students will be screened daily for symptoms, and mask protocols will be in place. Students in grades K through 8 will remain in pods of up to 30 students. Middle and high school students will be in the buildings on different days to limit exposure and enable social distancing.
Most notably, PPSD is offering a virtual academy. All students can use the virtual academy if desired, assessed on a semesterly basis. Students opting for this online option will maintain communication with their current schools, with teachers available at specific office hours. In their in-person learning and hybrid plans, the youngest and most at-need students will receive as much in-person instruction as possible. In a hybrid plan, older students will rotate in-school/at-home learning much like a traditional block schedule, with at worst, only the 11/12th graders receiving distance learning. For lunch time, any communal eating (in a cafeteria type setting) should be disinfected between each use.
Barrington has similar plans to stagger start times, limit the number of students in schools and reduce “classroom transitions,” a euphemism for students’ in-between class times. Younger students will keep the same class size and develop new protocols for moving throughout the buildings. Students in 7th grade or higher will have class size capped at 15 students with three adults allowed in the stable group. Students will social distance in the classroom at 6 feet apart or the school will install dividers to keep germ transmission down.
Students and staff who are at-risk for COVID-19 at Barrington schools will be allowed online options. Schools will have policies in place to screen students for symptoms as they come in, and any student or staff member feeling sick will be expected to stay home. Staff will be discouraged from travel. A negative COVID test alone is not an acceptable reason to return to school if a student or staff member has COVID symptoms. Like Providence, meals will be pre-packaged instead of being served in order to curb chances of transmission.
Newport’s plan includes students rotating from in-person learning to distance learning throughout the week in an A/B block scheduling pattern. Grades 6 and below would receive in-person instruction daily. All students would see staggered start times, with Wednesday dedicated to distance learning for everyone. The hybrid plan for Newport schools has all students on a rotating A/B block schedule divided simply into two groups alphabetically by last name. Their distance learning plan has pretty much its entire student body moved to a virtual education; students with only the most special needs have any possibility of in-person instruction.
Rhode Island Revolt?
Last week, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten announced any AFT chapter wishing to go on a safety strike or perform any advocacy or direct action would receive the full support and backing of the national. “We are not currently planning to strike,” said Maribeth Calabro, president of the Providence Teachers union. Calabro says they are planning to communicate with parents and other stakeholders to bring any concerns to district administration. If those concerns are not addressed by next month, the union will go from there. According to Calabro, at least 40% of Providence’s teachers have been there 20 years or more. While no one has the specific breakdown of the teaching workforce, it means a huge chunk of them are older and possibly at risk.
Calabro is also concerned about the state of disrepair in schools; Providence has school buildings where the windows literally do not open. Ventilation, a key component in curbing transmission of COVID-19, is almost impossible for a lot of schools in the city. Other concerns she has include how schools are going to accomplish mandatory fire drills without overcrowding the halls, and having enough PPE to ensure equity among the student population.
Safety is the number one concern among educators this summer. “As a high school teacher, I cannot think of any plan right now to make me feel safe enough to teach in-person,” said one teacher in an emailed interview with Motif. “Having plexiglass, shields, masks, PPE, etc. does not change the fact that I would be seeing 100-plus students and teachers each week.”
High school students will encounter directly or indirectly up to 80 people per day. Teachers are also on record questioning the suspension of social gathering limits for classrooms. Most notably, during a public Zoom meeting of the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, a student from The Met pointed out the hypocrisy of sending students back to school for in-person learning, while the Council met virtually.
“I don’t want to teach online,” said another teacher. “I love teaching in Providence, I love forging a relationship with students in person, I love my classroom. But the only way to begin this year … is online because the risk is far, far too great.” Distance learning was not ideal this past spring, the teacher admits. In his classroom, maybe 40% of students were showing up by the end of distance learning, compared to closer to 100% if it was a normal school year.
Best Laid Plans…
While the governor was hoping COVID rates would continue to plummet, in the past few weeks our number of daily cases has slowly crept upward, making it look like 100% in-person learning for the school year will approach impracticality. Key among the governor’s expectations is the use of distance learning as a semi-permanent backup when outbreaks occur in schools; however, no data exists for the effectiveness of distance learning. Motif asked during one of the governor’s weekly COVID press conference about the status of a formal assessment for distance learning in Rhode Island; Commissioner Angelica Infante Green answered it was scheduled for this autumn.
When Motif asked Governor Raimondo the same question in the first week of June what the plan was for a state assessment on distance learning, however, she answered one was underway. Commissioner Green issued a statement through RIDE that said: “We anticipate being able to field the first set of assessments this fall, with a first set of data available to our local education agencies in November. This will depend on several factors, including the availability of funding, the proposals we receive and the impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.” There was no response about the contradicting statements Motif pointed out, and the governor’s office did not answer or issue a statement.
All the school district plans are subject to change. RIDE announced last week that they will instruct each district which operational plan they should use to start the year — full in-person, hybrid or distance learning. The state will use metrics like the COVID-positive rate of the town, the readiness of the school district when it comes to testing and PPE in making their decision. The governor stated during a press conference last month that testing onsite at schools should have a turnaround of 48 to 72 hours, but as COVID surges across America, testing takes longer and longer.
As for what will happen in Rhode Island schools, only time will tell.