PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A virtual learning academy being planned for Providence Public Schools may be available to all families who choose it, Superintendent Harrison Peters said Wednesday night.
Peters told the Providence School Board the district is working to possibly offer the virtual learning academy to all families who want to utilize it, even if schools reopen fully in person. He had previously announced the academy would be created to serve immunocompromised students and teachers, but was still considering whether other families could participate.
It was not immediately clear whether teachers would also be given the option to remain virtual for any reason, regardless of underlying conditions. Chief Operating Officer Zack Scott said data on employees who want to teach virtually is still being collected.
Gov. Gina Raimondo said at her weekly coronavirus briefing Wednesday that she anticipates virtual learning to be an option for all Rhode Island families at least for the beginning of the school year, regardless of whether their district reopens fully in person or not.
A new draft of Providence’s reopening plans presented to the school board Wednesday also indicated the district is inching closer towards hybrid options, particularly for older students.
The original draft plan submitted to the state earlier this month (of which the district had to create full in-person, hybrid, and distance learning models) proposed having all grade levels learning fully in person, five days a week in the “best-case scenario” model if COVID-19 spread is low.
The new “best-case scenario” keeps elementary school students learning fully in person, but considers going to 50% capacity for middle and high schools, with a priority on keeping 6th and 9th graders in person.
The hybrid scenario, which had previously proposed to either reduce all schools to 50% or continue to keep elementary students fully in person, now suggests bringing elementary students down to 50% capacity (groups of 15) and reducing middle and high schools to 25% capacity.
The 50% capacity option for elementary students would create an A/B schedule where one cohort of students would go to school in person half the week, then swap with the other group and learn at home the other half.
Peters suggested it was possible that only 6th and 9th grade students, the youngest in middle and high school respectively, would go back to school in person.
The finalized plan (including all three scenarios) is required to be posted online by Friday. State health officials are expected to determine which scenario to implement around Aug. 17.
Wednesday also brought some possible changes to the mask policy, after Raimondo said teachers had expressed concerns about students being unmasked in the classroom. The state’s new “back to school” website says: “Masks are required in the K-12 setting, even when students are in stable groups and socially distanced.”
Peters had previously said students would be required to wear masks in hallways and school buses or other common areas, but could take them off inside their classrooms while in “stable groups.” (A spokesperson for Peters referred to the governor’s comments when asked if the mask plan has changed.)
Peters said Wednesday symptom screening would be done for all students and staff every day, but “we will not have the capacity to do any testing.”
The state released new testing criteria Wednesday for reopening schools in person, which include the ability to test all symptomatic — but not asymptomatic — students and teachers and get results within two to three days.