PROVIDENCE – When Governor Gina Raimondo announced on Friday, March 13, that every public school in Rhode Island would be required to close the following week to prepare for students to begin distance learning, she still held out hope that in-person classes could resume before summer vacation.
At the time, the coronavirus was only beginning a path of destruction that still has no clear end in sight. Soon the high school sports season was canceled. The rite of passage that was the senior prom became an afterthought. And graduation ceremonies looked more like a McDonald’s drive-through, as students were urged to remain in their cars until the very moment that it was time to receive their diploma.
It has now been six months and one day since students have been in school buildings, and for many teachers and families across the state, Monday’s return feels ambitious. Thousands of students will continue with distance learning for the foreseeable future. Others face week-on, week-off school schedules that have left them confused and anxious.
For those students who will be back in class, life will be anything but normal. Buses will have assigned seating. There will be no sharing snacks at lunch or tag at recess. And if you thought forgetting a homework assignment was the worst mistake a child could make, imagine what misplacing a mask will mean.
But Raimondo has spent the summer urging schools to prepare to reopen, and while she is officially giving districts until Oct. 13 to have full in-person learning, she has signaled that she won’t support further delays.
“We now know that distance learning started out okay, but faded out in its efficacy over time,” Raimondo said in an interview last week. “The kids who are already behind in life and behind in school are the most likely to fall through the cracks.”
All public schools in Rhode Island are scheduled to reopen in some fashion this week – a few are fully in-person, many are using a hybrid model that includes both in-person and distance learning, and some remain fully remote.
At least 25 percent of students in 39 school districts or public charter schools have opted to begin the year with distance learning, according to the Rhode Island Department of Education.
The reopening plans vary widely. Exeter-West Greenwich, Narragansett, North Kingstown, and South Kingstown are among the districts that plan to have full in-person learning for elementary and middle school students, but a phased-in approach at the high schools. Providence, the largest district in the state, is phasing in its reopening across all grades, with a focus on getting elementary school students back in class first.
Raimondo maintains that the majority of parents in Rhode Island want their children to return to school, but she said that she hasn’t paid for any polling on the issue.
An August survey from the COVID-19 Consortium for Understanding the Public’s Policy Preferences Across States found that 30.4 percent of Rhode Islanders believed that returning to school was very safe or somewhat safe, slightly under the national average of 31 percent.
Many parents say they are torn between wanting their children to receive the social and emotional benefits that come with a classroom setting and being concerned that a return to school could lead to a spike in coronavirus infections. Over the weekend, Rhode Island was expected to reach 23,000 positive cases since March 1.
Lamel Moore, a Lincoln resident, said his daughter will begin the first grade at Northern Lincoln Elementary School in a hybrid model. He said he understands why some districts might not be ready to reopen, but he said a return to class is especially essential for young children.
“Nothing can replace in-person learning for youth,” Moore said. “That is a critical component. Especially entering first grade where they will be challenged for the first time in many core curriculum activities.”
David Graziano of Cranston said his son is beginning the school year with distance learning at Edgewood Highland Elementary School, but he acknowledged that he’s eager for a return to in-person learning because children “need the stimulation that only in-person learning provides.”
Graziano said he has noticed the emotional toll the pandemic has taken on his children. Earlier in the summer, he took away his seven-year-old son’s device and urged him to play outside. His son turned to him and cried out, “When you were my age, you didn’t have to deal with this.”
But Graziano also said he doesn’t see a perfect solution, and he understands why teachers are hesitant to return to confined spaces that likely don’t have good ventilation and won’t be large enough for proper social distancing.
Indeed, teachers have emerged as some of the loudest critics of the state’s requirement to reopen school.
The Bristol Warren Education Association filed a lawsuit last week to block the district from reopening schools, but a judge rejected the request on Friday. The Providence Teachers Union held a demonstration outside the State House last week to emphasize that their classrooms aren’t ready for an influx of students.
Raimondo acknowledges that the unions are trying to do what’s best for their members. According to the National Teacher and Principal Survey, nearly 24 percent of teachers in Rhode Island were over the age of 55 during the 2017-18 school year, well above the national average. Experts believe people over the age of 50 are more likely to fall victim to the virus.
In Warwick, the school committee voted against reopening in-person, which led Raimondo to accuse the district of “throwing in the towel” on students.
Despite the concerns, Raimondo isn’t backing down from her plan to have all schools open by Oct 13. When asked if she has a plan to alter the timeline, she quickly blurted out, “Not gonna happen,” before adding the caveat that the state will allow data to guide its decisions.