PROVIDENCE — When Harrison Peters started as Providence’s superintendent of schools on Feb. 20, he understood that a herculean task was in front of him.
A battle-tested administrator with experience in Hillsborough County, Fla., and Chicago, Peters was hired to overhaul a school system where more than 80 percent of students aren’t reading or doing math at grade level, low morale has teachers leaving in droves, and classrooms are literally crumbling on top of the adults and children in them.
Less than a month later, Peters is confronting a completely different crisis. The novel coronavirus is now a pandemic that has infected nearly 200,000 people across the globe, and threatens to keep children in Rhode Island out of school for at least several weeks — and potentially far longer.
Now Peters is racing to implement a brand-new virtual learning strategy for 24,000 mostly low-income students — including acquiring tablets and laptops as well as internet access — while also trying to ensure that children have access to the meals they depend on no matter how long school is out of session.
By next week.
"There's no playbook for this,” Peters said during a telephone interview on Tuesday. “A hurricane comes and goes, and you can see it coming. This is very different.”
Peters said he has submitted Providence’s initial plan for virtual or remote learning to the state Department of Education, and is waiting for a response. Governor Gina Raimondo is expected to announce statewide guidance on virtual learning on Wednesday.
Until the coronavirus hit, Rhode Island officials assumed that virtual learning would be designed for snow days. A state law that was approved in 2017 allowed school districts to use up to three virtual days a year, largely to avoid having to keep kids in classrooms until the end of June.
But seemingly overnight, Peters and other superintendents are preparing for virtual learning to become the new normal. That’s why Raimondo ordered all schools to have an emergency vacation this week, and she urged district leaders to spend the time crafting a strategy to teach students remotely.
The biggest challenge Peters is facing?
“We need Wi-Fi,” he said. “We need help on that. Tell everyone we need Wi-Fi.”
Peters said nearly all students in grades 3 through 12 have a district-provided electronic device, typically a Chromebook. But while district officials believe most families do have at least some internet access, service can be unreliable and disconnections can be frequent in poorer communities.
He said the district doesn’t quite know how many families have no internet access, and principals and other community members are trying to survey residents to understand the depth of the challenge. Providence schools has an existing partnership with Sprint to provide Wi-Fi access to hundreds of students, but it’s unclear if that’s enough.
Feeding students is another challenge.
When inclement weather strikes, superintendents of urban school systems across the country often say one of their biggest concerns about closing school is the children who rely on breakfast or lunch at school. In Providence’s case, 85 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-cost lunch.
The district has announced it plans to provide grab-and-go meals at 10 schools every weekday for as long the coronavirus keeps children out of the classroom. All students under the age of 18 are eligible for the food, but they have to be present to get a meal.
“Right now, we want people to feel safe, and we want people get a meal,” Peters said.
Then there’s the other crisis.
A report released last summer by researchers from Johns Hopkins University found that Providence schools were plagued by widespread dysfunction. Students and teachers feared violence. Principals had little power to make changes in their schools. And in many cases, very little learning was happening, according to the report.
That led Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green to recommend that the state take control of the school system, taking oversight away from the mayor, City Council, and school board. She hired Peters away from Broward County, one of the largest school districts in the country.
Over the next several months, Infante-Green and Peters are planning to negotiate a new teachers union contract and unveil a multi-year turnaround plan for the district.
Peters said the school overhaul remains a top priority, even if his primary focus is on ensuring students can easily transition to virtual learning during the coronavirus scare. He’s been holding staff meetings at 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. every day to discuss both the immediate plans for the district and long-term goals.
He said he’s following former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel’s advice to “let no crisis go to waste,” with the hope that the innovative techniques that will be deployed to address learning in the age of the coronavirus will extend long after the disease is gone.
“We've made a social contract with children,” Peters said.
After 27 days on the job, Peters maintains he has no regrets about coming to Providence. He praised the district staff and Infante-Green’s team for helping him transition into the role, and said he’s hopeful the coronavirus won’t delay the reforms he wants to make in the district.
“This is what I signed up for,” Peters said.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Mr. Peters came from Hillsborough County, Florida.