PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Parents in Providence have one week to decide if they want their children to join a new “virtual learning academy” being built by the school district in response to parent concerns about going back to school in person, even as the decision about what school will look like this fall is still to be determined.
The virtual learning academy in the works right now will be its own entity — students in the academy will not be affiliated with a particular school — and parents therefore have to commit to joining the academy for the entire semester.
But while the deadline to sign up for Providence’s virtual academy is Aug. 19, the state is now pushing off the decision on whether schools can reopen in person — and under what scenario — until Aug. 31. (Gov. Gina Raimondo announced Wednesday the school year will be delayed for two weeks, with Sept. 14 the new start date.)
Therein lies the conflict for parents like Juanita Montes de Oca, who is trying to decide whether to sign her 14-year-old Classical High School sophomore up for the virtual academy, or take a chance on whatever Classical’s reopening scenario will look like — which very well could be a distance learning model to start.
“I think giving us that deadline of the 19th is not really fair,” Montes de Oca said in an interview. “There’s just not enough information for me to say sure, virtual learning academy sounds like a great plan.”
Montes de Oca said her daughter would be taking Advanced Placement (AP) and honors courses at Classical, which is a high-performing exam school within Providence Public Schools. In the virtual academy, it’s not yet clear if she can take those same courses — and she would not be taught by Classical teachers.
Laura Hart, a spokesperson for Providence Public Schools, said there will be an “array” of courses including AP and honors classes in the virtual academy, though they might not line up with the offerings in a student’s regular school.
Another potential deciding factor: while students can return to school in person for the second semester in January, it is not guaranteed that they would have a seat in their previous school.
The district is aiming to contract with vendor Edgenuity for the high school portion of the virtual academy, while K-8 students will use existing tools such as Google Classroom and follow the same curricula as their peers who are learning in person, though with different teachers. A dollar figure for the new contract with Edgenuity, which has not yet been finalized, was not immediately available.
Hart also said the “goal” is to only use Providence Public School teachers for the virtual learning academy, though she acknowledged it could be difficult depending on whether teachers in a variety of grade levels and subjects sign up to teach in the new academy.
Hart said despite the two-week school year delay, Providence is sticking with the Aug. 19 deadline for parents to sign up, in order to allow time to assign classes and build the new program.
Maribeth Calabro, the president of Providence Teachers Union, said Wednesday that more than 250 teachers have requested to teach in the virtual academy.
Parents will also have more formal roles in the new virtual academy than they did when school was virtual from March through June. The new program requires each student to have an assigned learning coach — most likely a parent — who will spend a certain number of hours of instructional time with their child each day, depending on the grade level.
Kindergarten and 1st grade is the heaviest lift for the learning coaches, with parents needing to spend about four hours per day on instruction, according to the district’s guidance.
Older students would need the least amount of one-on-one time with their parent-coach, at one hour per day for high schoolers. But the expected amount of “independent work time” increases as students get older, with high school students expected to work independently for six hours a day.
Dr. Elizabeth Goldberg, a parent of three who is also an emergency medicine physician, said she’s planning to send her children back to school in person if that’s an option.
“I don’t think my kids learned as well in the spring,” said Goldberg, who has two children at Vartan Gregorian Elementary School. “I think the benefits of in-person learning outweigh the risk.”
She noted that children under 10 are at a lower risk for coronavirus, and said she was confident she’d be able to get her children to wear their masks all day.
It’s still possible that all students will start the year out virtually, though that would not affect the academy. Students enrolled in the virtual academy would remain separate from those in traditional classrooms, who might be switching back and forth between in-person learning and distance learning depending on the virus trends.
The teachers union is calling for school to start completely virtual.
“According to available public health metrics and physical maintenance inside our schools, it is currently not safe to go back to school buildings,” Calabro said. “Unfortunately, school and state leadership chose not to use the summer months to improve school conditions and provide training on distance learning, despite clear indications of its likelihood, all but ensuring deep racial and economic inequities and serious questions about a proper and safe return to school in any format.”
Providence had a positivity rate of 4.9% last week, according to Health Department data, and 124 new cases per 100,000 residents. The state’s reopening metrics say a municipality must have below 100 cases per 100,000 in order to reopen in person.
In its new guidance for the virtual learning academy, Providence school leaders write that the district “maintains that in-person learning or a combination of in-person and distance learning is a preferable choice,” but says families with a “strong desire” to learn 100% virtually should sign up.