NORTH SMITHFIELD, R.I. (WPRI) — Fran Brotka’s living room is now a miniature school. She jokingly calls it “Brotka Academy.”
Five students — her grandchildren — ranging from the 1st to 9th grades are learning virtually there this fall due to the pandemic, as their parents juggle work and helping the kids with school.
“As a family, we decided it would be safer for them all to do their schooling virtual until we see how the pandemic goes,” Brotka explained in an interview over Zoom.
Because her grandchildren are virtual learning in two different school districts — North Smithfield and Providence — Brotka has had a unique window into the different remote learning models being employed by separate school systems.
And she has a clear preference for which one is better.
“At least in North Smithfield they do have a regular class time, they have a regular teachers, instruction, they have a teacher they can ask questions to,” Brotka said. “For the children in Providence, the 9th grader … he doesn’t really have a teacher for any of his classes.”
The North Smithfield students — Devin in 7th grade and Nathan in 1st grade — are doing distance learning similar to how they did in the spring, with their regular teachers from their usual school, on video calls throughout the day known as “synchronous” learning.
But Providence’s Virtual Learning Academy — the only option for parents in the capital city who did not want to return their children to school buildings — has much more “asynchronous” learning, where students are working independently.
At the high school level in particular, all Virtual Learning Academy (VLA) students are learning independently, with no synchronous live classes over video calls like they did in the spring. The district contracted with a company called Edgenuity for the high school VLA, and assigned teachers a roster of up to 200 students to provide guidance and answer questions as needed.
On the elementary level, there is more synchronous learning in the Providence VLA, but teachers were given a roster of 52 students — 26 per class — and are expected to teach both at separate times during the day.
Jessica Brotka, Fran’s daughter who lives in Providence, said that means her 8-year-old twins Namaar and Ameera see their teacher for live instruction just for just one hour, three days a week. She said she works full time and signed up for virtual learning in August, assuming it would be similar to the more synchronous distance learning model used in the spring when school was shut down.
“So I’m thinking it’s going to be how last year ended, where the teacher will come on and teach each subject,” the younger Brotka said. “Now it’s the teacher three hours a week … they really have no support in this.”
“I’m disappointed,” she added. “I feel like my children don’t matter to them. Because they’re getting a poor education.”
Nearly 7,000 students in Providence opted for the virtual academy — including more than 300 that got off the waitlist to join recently, according to a spokesperson — representing about 30% of the students in the school district.
But with most teachers needed for in-person school, only 118 were dedicated exclusively to the academy at the start of the school year. The academy saw a rocky start with parents and teachers alike voicing complaints.
The idea of having the virtual academy separate started with the idea that immunocompromised students and teachers could form their own remote school, no matter whether traditional Providence schools were open or not.
But the virtual academy was later opened up to all students — but not all teachers, causing an imbalance. The district has prioritized VLA spots for teachers who have underlying medical conditions.
“Many districts in Rhode Island are not giving teachers that option,” spokesperson Laura Hart said in an email.
Students who did not sign up for the virtual academy in Providence are in a variety of in-person and hybrid models, depending on their age group. Elementary students are now back in person five days a week, while middle and high school students are still phasing in and will be back in-person on an alternating schedule by mid-October. The only way to avoid entering a school building altogether this fall was to sign up for the VLA.
Superintendent Harrison Peters declined to be interviewed Wednesday about any changes in the works to improve the VLA.
“Providence Public Schools and the Providence Teachers Union have been engaged in discussions on ways to improve the Virtual Learning Academy experience for elementary teachers, and these discussions are ongoing,” Hart said. “We are continuing to pursue avenues to support families who would prefer 100% remote instruction over our in-person models.”
Fran Brotka says she took Gov. Gina Raimondo and Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green at their word over the summer when they promised from the podium of COVID-19 briefings that families would have a choice in their schooling.
The choices in Providence were not good options at all, she argues.
“If they can make a program in North Smithfield that the kids are getting a decent curriculum and education, why wasn’t the same done for the kids in Providence?” she asked.