PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) — The Pawtucket School Committee voted Tuesday night to keep nearly all of the city’s students learning virtually for the remainder of the school year, despite pressure from the state to return to in-person learning.

The decision means the majority of Pawtucket students will be learning remotely for a year and half, from March 2020 until September 2021, assuming school reopens in person in the fall.

The district opted to begin the school year with remote learning until the safety concerns discovered in 12 of the city’s 16 school buildings were addressed by the state.

Rhode Island Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green sent the Pawtucket School Committee a letter last week which outlined how each of the district’s concerns were mitigated.

“They are the only district in the state that has not come back, so there is really no reason other than they are making that decision,” Infante-Green said.

During a virtual meeting Tuesday evening, Superintendent Cheryl McWilliams presented a potential plan that would gradually allow students to return to the classroom.

Her plan would begin with Pre-K through 5th Grade returning in February, followed by 6th through 12th Grade in March. But despite her recommendation, the committee voted unanimously to keep students in grades 1-12 learning remotely.

They also voted in favor of having McWilliams explore the possibility of incorporating remote learning centers in the district’s school buildings.

That decision isn’t sitting well with Black Lives Matter Rhode Island, including policy advocate Bernice Morris.

“If there is no option for the kids that are struggling with distance learning to go to school, that is a problem,” Morris said.

Morris, along with several others members, drove the Jenks Middle School expecting to attend an in-person meeting. They planned on voicing their concerns during that meeting, but learned minutes before that the committee was meeting remotely because of the pandemic.

She also said because of the committee’s rules, which states that anyone who wishes to speak must request to do so prior to the start, she and other members were unable to express their concerns.

“We know that the education system in general is not working for African American students and that system needs to change,” Morris said.

Those concerns were recently outlined in a letter to the committee, penned by Executive Director Brother Gary Dantzler, in which he urged the committee to complete the district’s plan to return to in-person learning immediately.

In the letter, Dantzler noted that Pawtucket has the highest percentage of African American students in the state, who do not have the option to attend school in person.

“The racial disparity does not go unnoticed,” he wrote. “We know that COVID-19 has exacerbated education inequities and has disproportionately impacted the African American community here in Rhode Island.”

Morris said despite not being able to voice their opinion at Tuesday’s meeting, they will continue to “put pressure on the people that can make this change happen.”

The Pawtucket Teachers’ Alliance President Ronald Beaupre applauded the committee’s decision, saying, “While we all agree that an in-person instructional model is most effective, the safety and wellbeing of students and staff must be the utmost priority. With that in mind, the Pawtucket School Department has committed to providing a remote learning model that is both responsible and effective.”

Beaupre also addressed the concerns put forth by Black Lives Matter Rhode Island and Infante-Green, calling them “false and ignorant.”

“Clearly, the R.I. Department of Education’s agenda is driving their false narrative, attempting to discredit Pawtucket’s high quality Distance Learning program which is ensuring the educational needs of our students are met while keeping students and staff safe during this pandemic,” Beaupre wrote. “I am confident that because of our collective efforts, our students will continue to be
successful, and I look forward to returning to brick and mortar instruction when it is safe to do