PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The R.I. Department of Education is asking school districts to come up with plans in case they have to close due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green sent a letter to all K-12 public school districts on Thursday, calling on school leaders to submit their plans to RIDE by March 19.
The plans should “support instruction if your schools need to be closed for an extended period of time,” Infante-Green wrote.
“Let me be clear that such action is not yet warranted,” she added.
Gov. Gina Raimondo offered a similar message during a national television interview Thursday afternoon. “I am not yet at the point of closing schools,” she said, citing the disruption such a move would cause as well as the way it would deprive some students of healthy meals.
The plans may include virtual learning from home if districts have to close for short or long periods of time to clean schools or quarantine students and staff. Rhode Island law has allowed for virtual learning days since 2017, but it has never been put into practice because no school districts have had plans approved by RIDE.
Multiple school districts are currently close to forming virtual learning plans, according to Ana Riley, the deputy commissioner for instructional programs at RIDE.
“The bar is set high because we want to make sure all students get the same educational opportunities if it were to be a virtual-learning day,” Riley said in an interview. “We worry about young students, but also the differently-abled students, multilingual students, students who need other services that would be difficult to provide online.”
Saint Raphael Academy, a private school in Pawtucket that has been closed since early March after multiple people on a school trip to Italy contracted the coronavirus, has been utilizing virtual learning. But that’s because it’s a private school and not bound by the requirements of RIDE.
East Providence is one of the districts that is close to getting approval, according to Riley, who said the district is providing computers for students to take home and has found grant money to pay for temporary WiFi access for families who don’t have it.
Superintendent Kathryn Crowley said the funding is through Mobile Beacon, a nonprofit that aims to solve digital inequities in schools.
“Everyone is planning for this, some are closer than others,” Riley said.
The 2017 law authorizing virtual learning was meant for snow days, and allowed districts to hold up to three days of online learning, which would not need to be made up at the end of the year.
RIDE spokesperson Pete Janhunen said six applications have previously been submitted and rejected for not being fully equitable; the applicants were Barrington, North Smithfield, Blackstone Academy, The Compass School, The Green School and The Learning Community Charter school.
With the new threat of COVID-19, Riley said she expects many more districts to form plans and apply for virtual learning. RIDE is providing guidance to help schools make their plans equitable so they can get approved.
“While virtual learning resources are not a substitute for a teacher in a classroom with a child, they may serve as a valuable option in your plan,” Infante-Green wrote in her letter.
She also said RIDE has the authority to reduce the number of school days to 170 “in the event of any emergency brought about by the incidence of any epidemic or the threat of an epidemic,” which could be a possibility. Public school districts typically need to run for 180 days and make up any canceled days at the end of the year.
Infante-Green’s letter was accompanied by a template for schools to make plans, which includes questions about emergency operations, cleaning, attendance and sick-leave policies, communication with families, instructional contingency and virtual learning.
Riley said the state has also applied for a U.S. Department of Agriculture waiver that would allow certain school districts to continue receiving federal reimbursements for free- and reduced-price lunches, even if schools are closed. The exact plan for how meals would be distributed has not yet been formed.
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