PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green isn’t ruling out the possibility of having to delay the start of school, as the logistics of reopening amid a public health crisis have proven challenging.
“We have to be flexible,” Infante-Green said during a wide-ranging interview with WPRI 12 Friday. “If we need to move things, we will.”
The first day of school is currently set for Aug. 31.
Among the latest challenge is figuring out to how to provide virtual learning to all students who don’t feel comfortable with in-person learning, while also opening classrooms to those who want it. The option was first revealed earlier this week when Infante-Green and Gov. Gina Raimondo announced that families could choose virtual learning for their children, even if schools reopen to in-person education.
“They will have a choice of having their child go online or in person,” Infante-Green said.
Infante-Green acknowledged that depending on how many families sign up, the logistics of every district offering virtual learning will be a challenge. Classrooms will need to be staffed with teachers whether they have 25 students or 10, while also allocating enough teachers to virtual programs.
“It’s a nightmare,” Infante-Green said. “I have to be honest. … We just have to be innovative and think out of the box.”
The promise of a virtual option came after scores of parents and teachers expressed concerns about the safety of returning to school. Rhode Island doesn’t have enough testing capacity to test everyone for COVID-19 before returning to school, and many classrooms are not large enough to space 25-30 desks six feet apart.
“I can’t tell you how many emails I get a day from parents who say ‘I need my child to go back because they didn’t benefit as much from distance learning,'” Infante-Green said. “Or, ‘I’m afraid and I don’t want my child to go back.'”
Providence, for example, had previously planned to offer a virtual learning academy for students and teachers at high risk for COVID-19, but not necessarily all students. Superintendent Harrison Peters said this week the district was working to try and offer the option to all families.
Whether teachers will be given the option to teach virtually for any reason is still in question, and will likely depend on how many families opt to send their children back to school in person.
“We have surveyed teachers who have an underlying disease or are immunocompromised,” Infante-Green said. “We are prioritizing teachers that are at risk.”
Stephanie Mandeville, a spokesperson for the National Education Association of Rhode Island, said “the assumption should be that all students and teachers are virtual with the potential option to be in person – not the other way around.”
Districts were required to post their final reopening plans online by Friday, but the Education Department said a number of districts were given extensions in order to further revise the plans. (A spokesperson declined to disclose which districts got extensions, but said a third of districts got “significant feedback” from state education officials earlier this week.)
The draft plans that were submitted on July 17 had to include three scenarios: full in-person, full distance learning and a hybrid.
A number of districts submitted proposals for an “A/B” alternating schedule, which would split students into two groups that would take turns attending school in-person.
While the A/B model would allow class sizes to be smaller and allow for more physical distancing, it would also make it difficult for parents who need to go back to work.
“A and B day has been a topic of contention,” Infante-Green said. “We heard loud and clearly that this alternate day is a problem.”
She said RIDE is working with districts on avoiding the A/B schedule, which could happen naturally if enough parents sign up for virtual learning and in-person class sizes shrink.
The other option — which is being considered in Providence — would keep older students who can be home alone learning virtually, so that high school buildings could be used to spread out younger students.
Infante-Green also said that students with special needs and individualized education plans (IEPs) and multilingual learners would be allowed to attend in person, even if their grade level is assigned to be virtual or a hybrid.
The R.I. Department of Health is expected to release a decision on whether it’s safe to reopen schools on Aug. 17, based on a series of metrics that include the ability to test symptomatic teachers and students and get results in two-to-three days.
Based on that decision, districts will have just two weeks to implement plans, figure out bus routes and assign students and teachers to virtual and physical classrooms.
Along with considering delaying the school year, Infante-Green said changing the 180-day requirement is on the table. Massachusetts has waived 10 days of the school year in order to allow districts to reopen by Sept. 17.