Amid complaints, class sizes shrinking for Providence virtual academy

School Updates

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Providence Virtual Learning Academy will no longer have 52 students per teacher in elementary school, following complaints from parents and teachers about the virtual school.

The standalone virtual academy (known as VLA) launched on Sept. 14 to a rocky start due to the large class rosters and some communication issues.

One of the biggest complaints was that elementary school teachers were assigned 52 students each in the VLA just three days before it launched. The rosters were split into two classes of 26, and teachers were told to do synchronous learning (such as Zoom calls) with one class in the morning, then switch to the other class in the afternoon.

Teachers protested the student-to-teacher ratio, picketing outside the R.I. Department of Education during the first week of school about the problems with the VLA.

Following negotiations with the Providence Teachers Union, district spokesperson Laura Hart said class rosters will now decrease to 36 students per teacher.

The smaller virtual roster was achieved by re-assigning more than two dozen literacy, math and reading coaches — who traditionally provide supports to teachers in school buildings — to be elementary school teachers in the virtual academy.

The change allows the VLA to have more teachers without having to pull classroom teachers from in-person schools, which could have potentially increased class sizes in person.

The reassignments are temporary, and the coaching positions will remain in place after the pandemic, Hart said.

Some students in the virtual academy are being assigned new teachers because of the change.

The change “will allow students to have more personalized, small group work and less independent study throughout the day,” she added.

Providence Teachers Union President Maribeth Calabro said the agreement will provide some much-needed relief for teachers.

“While we would really like it be down to 26, it’s just not feasible,” Calabro said. “It’s still a heavy lift but it’s a lot a easier.”

Roughly 6,500 students are enrolled in the VLA, which is Providence’s alternative for parents who do not want their children to be in school in person. About 400 students have been added to the academy from the waitlist since the start of school, but students have also opted to go back to the classroom, Hart said, leaving the enrollment number about the same.

The new changes do not affect high school and middle school classes, which have more independent learning than the elementary school. The high school VLA program is conducted on a program called Edgenuity and is almost entirely independent, with the opportunity to connect with teachers one-on-one or in groups as needed.

Other than those students enrolled in the virtual academy, Providence has all grade levels in school in person now, after phasing them in over the course of September and October. Elementary schools are in person five days a week, while middle and high school students alternate between in-person and distance learning days.

At a School Board meeting earlier this week district officials said there have been 69 COVID-19 cases for in-person students and staff as of Oct. 20, and 39 cases among virtual learners.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

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