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RI EDUCATION

Providence School Board urges state to allow distance learning, provide masks, offer mental health support

‘A turnaround cannot be successful without a COVID-19 response strategy,’ the board said in an email to the Rhode Island General Assembly

The Carl G. Lauro Elementary School at 99 Kenyon St., in Providence.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — The pandemic-related hardships Providence schools have faced during the last three school years cannot be resolved with the state takeover alone, School Board president Kinzel Thomas has told the state.

While district students, teachers, school staff and administrators have been able to keep schools mostly open throughout the pandemic to ensure students receive in-person learning, Thomas said, the district had reached a pivotal point where human capital has been stretched thin.

In a letter sent Monday to the Rhode Island General Assembly and obtained by the Globe, Thomas urged the state to develop a robust COVID-19 response strategy for Providence Schools that included tactics to mitigate learning loss while students are quarantining due to COVID-19, having masks sent to schools, hosting additional vaccine clinics, and extending more mental health supports in all schools.

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In the letter, the school board also asked the state to allocate federal dollars to help pay for supplies and invest in facilities.

“It has become clear in the past three school years that a turnaround cannot be successful without a robust COVID-19 response strategy for PPSD that must include resources beyond those extended in the past,” wrote Thomas, directing statements to those “partners in state government who have vowed to turnaround the district.”

He added, “The health and wellness of our PPSD school children and their teachers and staff are a matter of great public importance and the COVID-19 response strategy should be openly shared with community stakeholders.”

Thomas is Providence’s new school board president after Nicholas Hemond stepped down after five-and-a-half years. The board is appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council, but has played an advisory role to the school department since the state took over the district on Nov. 1, 2019 in an effort to improve performance.

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COVID-19 cases have spiked in Providence again, and it’s coming as only 29 percent of eligible students in the district are fully vaccinated.

The state, which has strongly advocated for in-person learning, does not allow Providence students to learn virtually unless it’s a snow day. But Thomas said all students need to receive instruction during their quarantine and isolation.

“A strategy that relies on individual teachers to ensure that instruction continues to occur is insufficient,” Thomas said. He added that families are requesting a virtual learning option, which he said may be the most suitable option for some students.

But, he said, making distance learning an option in the state’s largest district will require “substantial additional financial support” and teacher training.

State education department spokesman Victor Morente told the Globe in an email the district has a “multi-pronged approach to distance learning where students who are quarantining, isolating due to infection, or are medically fragile and have coordinated with the district, may be engaged in asynchronous learning” and can Zoom into a class “depending on individual need.”

But teachers have reported to the Globe that students who are tuning into a class via Zoom instead of attending in-person have to be marked “absent” that day.

Providence also called for the state to immediately work to increase COVID-19 vaccination rates among students and staff. Rhode Island Department of Education has hosted some school-based vaccine clinics, with another scheduled for Friday, but Thomas said the state needs to put an effort into providing “culturally-appropriate” vaccine information to Providence families through community outreach, such as efforts that have occurred in Central Falls where community health workers conducted home outreach.

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Thomas also asked for each student and staff member to be given high-quality masks, such as KN95s. Teachers in Providence have told the Globe they have repeatedly asked for masks since the arrival of the highly contagious Omicron variant, but have been told for weeks that they are “on the way.” During their first meeting of the year last week, City Council members urged the governor to provide basic COVID-19 services and protections to the district, including masks.

In a 2017 report, 27 of 36 district school buildings were rated in “poor” or “worse” condition. Thomas said Providence has more than $600 million in facility needs and only $300 million available in bonds to invest in buildings with no more bonding capacity until 2029. He said the school board is requesting funds be used to ensure all students and staff attend schools that are “pandemic and climate change resilient.”

“Investment in our Providence children and the teachers and staff that support their growth and learning is critical for Rhode Island’s future success but has been under-recognized in public communication surrounding planned use of (American Rescue Plan Act) funds,” wrote Thomas, who said “improved transparency and collaboration” between the RIDE, the state health department, and the governor’s office was crucial for the district.

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Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.