PROVIDENCE — Lesley Shapiro walks into her classroom at Classical High School each morning and takes attendance by counting those sitting at desks and those in square boxes on Zoom. Every chemistry lesson she teaches is in a hybrid learning model.
Her students and their parents are grateful that she takes the time to lecture for those at home. But it’s not the case for the rest of those students’ classes — or the rest of the school district, for that matter.
The state formally took control of the Providence Public School District on Nov. 1, 2019, in an attempt to improve performance. The state, which has strongly advocated for in-person learning, does not allow Providence students to learn virtually unless it’s a snow day.
So, technically, those students clocking into Shapiro’s chemistry class from home instead from inside her classroom are considered “absent” for the day.
“But I know they are learning and engaged,” Shapiro said on a recent phone interview.
On Thursday, as positive COVID-19 cases rose throughout the district, Shapiro handed in her attendance sheet to the main office and it showed that 50 percent of her class was absent.
But technically, only two couldn’t show up for class. One was in the hospital. The other was driving to get a PCR test.
“To me, those are valid excuses to be out,” said Shapiro, who wants distance learning to be an option for students. “My kids are bending over backwards to get to class — one way or another.”
While a handful of individual schools and some entire districts made the decision to shift to distance learning the week after coming off of the holiday break, Providence opted for a staggered approach, with individual grades coming in each day. In some cases, students received rapid COVID-19 tests when they arrived and then would head to their classrooms. If they were positive, they would be dismissed.
But when students are dismissed and have to quarantine, there’s no option for them join class remotely. Instead, they are losing days of lessons and homework. That’s why Shapiro took it upon herself to allow students to tune in from home.
“If the argument is to keep kids in school and not have an option to learn remotely because the state wants to prevent ‘learning loss,’ then we aren’t doing that,” she said. “In my class alone, they are losing out on several lessons and then come back and I have to catch them up and reteach them. Then another round of kids are out and infected and I have to go back again.”
Shapiro started the academic year with two weeks of review, knowing that students suffered different degrees of learning loss because the previous two academic years were filled with COVID-related disruptions.
Providence has the largest school district in the state, with about 21,000 students. Only 29 percent of eligible students have completed their primary COVID-19 vaccination series, and 229 students tested positive during the seven days ending on Jan. 1, according to the health department. School staff and teachers say that the number of students to test positive is expected to be “exponentially higher” over the next few weeks.
Representative Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, a Providence Democrat and district school teacher, said she’s been publicly asking for the district to go remote since before Christmas due to rising COVID cases.
“We need more test sites available before we even think about going back to school in-person,” Ranglin-Vassell told the Globe. “Temporary distance learning does not mean a ‘lockdown.’ There’s no reason why we can’t try it until COVID isn’t running wild in our schools and in our neighborhoods.”
But on Thursday the state aligned itself with new recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which include shortening the isolation and quarantine duration for students and staff to five days, streamlining case investigation and contact tracing for students and staff, and waiving the requirement for a negative test result for close contacts to end quarantine.
The state’s schools will also implement the “Monitor to Stay” quarantine program for those students and staff who are not exempt from quarantine in order to maximize in-person learning.
“We are following the experts... [Students] will be able to stay in school because we have these mitigations in place. That’s why we encourage those in schools to get vaccinated,” said education commissioner Angélica Infante-Green said in a virtual press conference this week. “Students, teachers, and school staff should all get vaccinated.”
But Shapiro said she doesn’t think it’s time to implement less-stringent rules in Providence, where COVID-19 is running rampant.
Her own children are learning in person, but at a private school over the border in Massachusetts. She said her kids’ school is taking extra precautions, and have only identified three cases of COVID-19 in the school since March 2020.
“I have told my students that it’s not my job to force them to come into the building. But I expect to see them one way or another,” Shapiro said. “If that’s Zoom, then fine. They’re trying. I’m not saying my solution is perfect. It’s not. And it’s burning me out.”
“But kids can’t learn if they are scared and don’t feel safe,” she said. “They can’t learn if they are cycling in and out of school.”