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RI EDUCATION

R.I. teachers union calls for distance learning until Jan. 18

National Education Association Rhode Island says superintendents must be able to move to distance learning in response to staffing levels and student absenteeism

The Providence Teachers Union holds a rally opposing school reopening outside of the Rhode Island Department of Education building while the State Council on Elementary and Secondary Education meets inside.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — Amid a surge in COVID-19 cases, the National Education Association Rhode Island on Monday came out in favor of allowing school districts to return to distance learning for at least another week.

The 12,000-member teachers union said superintendents need to be able to shift to distance learning when staffing levels undermine safety or student absenteeism undercuts productive in-person learning.

The union — which represents teachers in 28 communities including East Providence, Newport, and East Greenwich — supports moving to distance learning immediately, with a return on Jan. 18, after the Martin Luther King Day holiday.

Robert A. Walsh Jr., executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island, said the union is not planning the kinds of actions seen in Chicago, where a teachers union voted to revert to online instruction and told teachers not to show up while talks took place.

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“We fully understand and support the reasons to keep school open,” Walsh said. But NEARI leaders have been meeting with local union leaders, “and they say they are hurting,” he said. Some schools are facing student attendance and safety issues, he said, and those schools should have the ability to return to remote instruction until those issues are resolved.

“We’d be pleased to learn that everybody has what they need to return in person today,” Walsh said. “We just don’t think that is the case.”

State officials have emphasized the importance of locally based decision making, Walsh said. “Well, here’s the time,” he said.

Until the COVID-19 surge is over, NEARI is backing these five guidelines:

  • Superintendents need to be able to move to distance learning when staffing levels do not provide for a safe environment and/or absenteeism among students makes it difficult for productive in-person learning to take place.
  • Districts need to be able to move to distance learning if there are not KN95 masks available daily for all staff and students in the district.
  • Tests need to be available in every district for staff and student that require them, following Centers for Disease Control guidelines for testing. And if tests are not available as needed, districts need to be able to move to distance learning.
  • During distance learning, access to breakfast and lunch must be available to all students.
  • During distance learning, students must have access to school-based health services, including mental health services.

NEARI President Larry Purtill said, “We met with our local union presidents last week to hear directly from the classroom educators and education support professionals on how the return from winter break is going, and in many cases it is not healthy or safe.”

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The decision-making as to whether schools should remain open or move to distance learning will be made at the local level, Purtill said. But, he said, “There is extraordinary pressure coming from the RI Department of Education and RI Department of Health to keep schools open for multiple reasons, most of which we support when safety and practicality are in place.”

Some superintendents report that the Department of Education has been “a roadblock” in letting them make those decisions, Purtill said.

“Many would prefer to use distance learning in the coming week until staffing levels, student attendance, and safety issues (including adequate supplies and testing) are in place,” he wrote. “We largely agree with that assessment and ask them to join with us in being more vocal in stating those beliefs publicly.”

The new Providence School Board president Kinzel 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.

In November, the Providence Teachers Union sued the school district and the state Education Department to try to force the temporary closure of a city middle school where dozens of staff members are out because of coronavirus-related concerns.

Nathanael Greene Middle School students and staff “have an incontrovertible right to work and learn in an environment that is safe and adheres to the guidelines laid down by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Rhode Island Department of Health,” the complaint said.

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Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.