PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The parents of about 5,000 Providence students have enrolled their children in Providence’s new virtual learning academy, according to Superintendent Harrison Peters, amid uncertainty about the upcoming school year.
The enrollees so far represent more than one-fifth of the 24,000 students in Rhode Island’s largest public school district.
“That data shows we made the right decision for this option,” Peters told the Providence School Board Wednesday.
The district had originally in July promised a virtual learning option for students with underlying medical conditions, but later expanded the option to all families.
The virtual academy will be run independent of any particular school, and parents had to commit their children to the academy until at least January. The deadline to sign up was Wednesday, leaving parents to decide to enroll without knowing if their child’s regular school will reopen in person or start out with distance learning.
Ilse Jenouri, a parent of a student at Nathan Bishop Middle School, expressed concern that her son would no longer be a student at Nathan Bishop if she chooses virtual learning for medical reasons.
“He will essentially be disaffiliated with Nathan Bishop, the people who know him well,” Jenouri said in the public comment period of the School Board meeting. “There’s not a lot of information about who is overseeing the virtual learning academy. How do we know it’s a quality education that’s being delivered?”
She also lamented that the deadline to commit to the academy was set at Aug. 19, despite the fact that both the reopening decision date and the first day of school were pushed back two weeks.
The district has contracted with vendor Edgenuity for the high school portion of the academy, while younger students will use the same curriculum as their peers attending the traditional schools.
The initial contract costs $64,500 for 500 high school students, with an additional 20 dollars per additional student up to $100,500.
A grade-level breakdown for the 5,000 students who have signed up for the academy was not immediately available, but a spokesperson said the Edgenuity contract can be expanded.
The district is aiming to use all Providence Public School teachers for the virtual academy, though the program is expected to also require students to learn independently.
Maribeth Calabro, the president of the Providence Teachers Union, asked the School Board to table the discussion on the Edgenuity contract instead of approving it, out of concern that students would not be connected to their existing schools and teachers while in the program.
“The students we have in the virtual academy won’t necessarily be students in our class or students from our school,” Calabro said. She said “while distance learning was not perfect,” in the spring, it allowed more direct connection between students and their teachers and peers than the Edgenuity platform does.
“We have to be very careful with allowing adult interests to supersede what’s right for students,” Peters said in response to Calabro’s concerns.
He also said students will be able to return to their previous schools, but not necessarily in January. A child’s spot in their physical school might not be available halfway through the year if too many teachers from their school are continuing to staff the virtual academy in the second semester, he said. Students should be able to return to their regular schools by next fall.
It is still possible that all Providence students could start the school year out with distance learning, but a decision is not expected for another two weeks. The district is preparing for in-person, distance learning and hybrid models.
The state is expected to make a decision on whether districts can reopen on Aug. 31, two weeks before the start of school on Sept. 14.
The state’s requirements for reopening schools includes a municipal COVID-19 rate, which must be below 100 new cases per week per 100,000 residents.
As of Wednesday, the city of Providence’s rate for the past week was 117 cases per 100,000, slightly above that threshold.