PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — As much of society shuts down in an effort to contain the coronavirus pandemic, school districts in Rhode Island are gearing up to provide remote learning as soon as Monday.
State officials have not yet announced whether schools will remain closed beyond the end of this week, but districts are preparing for the potential of long-term closures. Gov. Gina Raimondo has indicated she expects to make an announcement about school closures on Wednesday.
“I hope it’s as short a term as possible,” North Smithfield Superintendent Michael St. Jean said in an interview. “But I don’t know how likely that is. At this point in time, I’m just aware of a possibility of next week being virtual.”
While some private schools have already begun virtual learning, public schools need to have their plans approved by the R.I. Department of Education, which sets a high bar for equity. All students have to have access to technology and the internet, and districts are grappling with how to best serve English learners and students with disabilities.
“We’re still in the process of working with different school departments to figure out who’s ready for distance learning, and we want to make sure that if that’s the path we choose, that cities and towns are going to be able to actually deliver a high-quality education in a distance learning fashion — versus just closing school,” Raimondo said.
Multiple districts already provide Chromebooks or other computers to students, and others — including Providence — have been loaning out the devices this week to students who don’t have computers at home. Providence Superintendent Harrison Peters tweeted on Tuesday that Mount Pleasant High School signed out more than 100 Chromebooks.
Cable provider Cox Communications is also offering a month of free internet service for low-income families with school-aged children, which school districts can apply for by sending Cox a list of students who do not have internet connections.
East Providence — the first school district to submit a virtual learning plan to RIDE on Friday — was originally asking principals to apply for WiFi access through Mobile Beacon, a nonprofit aimed at creating digital equity. But Superintendent Kathryn Crowley said Tuesday the national organization was overwhelmed with requests, so the district is now planning to purchase WiFi cards from Verizon.
In North Smithfield, St. Jean said the older students already have Chromebooks, and younger students will be able to borrow them this week if they don’t have access to computers at home. The district already created a virtual learning plan for snow days two years ago, and while it was not approved by RIDE, St. Jean said it helped set the district up to prepare for the current crisis.
For example, he said teachers already use Google Classroom — and older students are accustomed to receiving assignments and materials online. Younger students were sent home with hard-copy packets on Friday to use at home, St. Jean said.
The plans also include principals reading the morning announcement on video, and teachers recording videos of themselves reading books to their younger students.
“It’s not the academics that I’m most disappointed about,” St. Jean said. “It’s the social services. The social-emotional part of what our people do during the day.”
Woonsocket Superintendent Patrick McGee said that district is working on a “hybrid approach” that involves hard-copy packets for students without WiFi access, and digital resources for those who do. McGee said plans should be ready to be shared with parents by Friday.
North Kingstown, Bristol-Warren and Scituate were among the districts making plans to loan out digital devices this week.
Last week, R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green told districts to get their remote learning plans to RIDE by this Thursday. That directive came one day before Raimondo decided to close schools this week, moving up the April vacation.
Pete Janhunen, a spokesperson for RIDE, said “roughly half” of local education agencies — which includes public school districts and public charters — had submitted plans as of Tuesday. He would not say which districts have completed the plans.
“Our team is working to assess those plans and will decide on next steps based on those assessments,” Janhunen said. “We are in contact with all other LEAs and are confident they will meet the March 19 deadline.”
While Raimondo has not yet said whether school will remain closed next week, multiple superintendents have sent remote learning plans to parents under the assumption that they will be closed.
The state’s virtual learning law was initially meant for snow days, and anticipated replacing just a few days of school with remote learning. In light of the coronavirus crisis, the state will need to decide whether to waive the 180 day requirement if schools are out for a long period of time.