Rocky start for Providence’s new virtual learning academy

School Updates

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — When Christine Rahill received word that she could sign her two children up for virtual learning in Providence for the upcoming school year, she enrolled them right away.

“I’m afraid for them to go to school and bring something home,” Rahill told 12 News. “I live in a family house, eight people would have to quarantine out of their job.”

But her review of the first day of Providence’s standalone virtual learning academy was summed up in one word: “Horrible.”

Her daughter is in 4th grade in the academy, where 60 teachers are assigned to approximately 3,000 elementary school students, with teachers given a roster of up to 52 students.

“There’s 52 kids in her class,” Rahill said. “It took an hour to take attendance on Zoom. … She had one assignment yesterday, all day.”

Her son, who is in 12th grade and typically attends Mount Pleasant High School, also had little success in the new academy, Rahill said. The academy’s high school students are learning mostly independently through a program called Edgenuity.

“He signed on, did an assignment, he has an IEP,” Rahill said, referring to an individualized education plan. “It bounced him out because he took too long. It won’t let him back in.” She said she has been trying to contact someone with the school district to get him logged back in, but has not been able to reach anyone on Monday or Tuesday.

She also questioned why the district was apparently not prepared for the academy — teachers got their class rosters on Friday and started contacting families over the weekend — when they set an Aug. 19 deadline to sign up specifically so they would have enough time to plan.

“I didn’t get her login information for Google Classroom until 11 a.m. Monday,” Rahill said. She found out who her daughter’s teacher was via text message on Friday.

Rahill is one of many parents and teachers expressing frustration about the new virtual learning academy, a program aimed at finding a solution to concerns about the safety of in-school learning. Teachers picketed outside the R.I. Department of Education Tuesday afternoon to protest the large class sizes and logistical problems of the virtual academy, in addition to expressing concerns about the air quality inside the schools.

“There are going to be hiccups,” R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green told 12 News on Tuesday. She acknowledged there were technological glitches in the virtual academy.

“It is the second day now in a whole new world, a whole new situation, and we just have to communicate and be supportive for one another,” Infante-Green said.

Providence is Rhode Island’s largest school district, with roughly 24,000 students across the city.

The virtual learning academy — abbreviated as VLA — was originally conceived as a separate school only for immunocompromised students and teachers. But amid parent demand for remote learning and a promise from Gov. Gina Raimondo that parents would have choices, Superintendent Harrison Peters opened it up to any student — but not any teacher — who wanted it.

Roughly 6,500 families enrolled their students by the deadline last month. But as of Tuesday, only 118 teachers were dedicated exclusively to teaching the academy, as the majority of the district’s nearly 2,000 teachers are back in their classrooms. All elementary school students are slated to be back in class full-time by next Monday, while older grades are doing a combination of remote and in-person learning with every grade level scheduled to be back at school, full- or part-time, by October.

That leaves a shortage of available teachers to assign to the virtual academy, though many requested to teach in it. Only 11 middle school teachers are dedicated to the academy, Providence Schools spokesperson Laura Hart said, while all the rest are teaching both their regular middle school classes and classes in the virtual academy. (The academy has 1,700 middle schoolers.)

“They’re walking around with Chromebooks, checking in with students who are in person and then having to check the chat on the Zoom,” said Maribeth Calabro, the president of the Providence Teachers Union.

High school teachers have up to 200 students on their rosters in the virtual academy, since the high school program is “self-directed” on Edgenuity, according to Hart.

“Teachers do not need to create lesson plans, deliver lessons or engage in grading,” Hart said of the high school. “They serve in facilitating and support capacities, offering break-out sessions and personalized assistance.”

Elementary teachers, who are doing the most “synchronous” learning — such as Zoom classes — are teaching two 26-person classes each, Hart said, totaling 52 students.

“This is possible because classes mix synchronous (with teacher in real-time) and asynchronous (independent) learning throughout the day,” she said.

Patrick Shelton, a 3rd-grade teacher, expressed frustration at a meeting of the R.I. Council on Elementary and Secondary Education.

“I just don’t understand how the decision was made to even allow this to happen in the first place,” he said. “It’s not fair to our students.”

“I cannot meet the needs of 52 kids,” said another teacher, Melissa Palumbo. “You are punishing our families who chose virtual learning.”

There are plenty of teachers willing to move to virtual learning. Laura Lee Brady, the art teacher at Alfred Lima Elementary School, said she requested a placement in the VLA due to her father’s breathing stoma and COPD after surviving cancer. She said her father provides childcare for her 9-month-old daughter while she goes to school, which could facilitate transmission if Brady contracts the virus at school.

“I was afraid of the transmission risk that I will have as a specialist seeing all the students,” Brady said. As the school’s only art teacher, she will be teaching to all grade levels in person, an exception to the “stable group” rule that districts are aiming for. She said she is also assigned to cover three lunch duties — students will be eating in their classrooms, not the cafeteria — leaving her exposed to dozens of students who will be unmasked while eating.

“I will be seeing every student that is present in the building,” Brady said. “I considered resigning my position, but that’s honestly the worst-case scenario because I love my job.”

Brady said she feels her concerns have been ignored, which is why she started posting publicly on Twitter about how specialists would not be able to maintain stable groups. She made a personal appeal to Infante-Green and Superintendent Peters via email, and was upset by the response.

“Most specialist have been reaching out trying to help me problem solve around how they can get in front of their students,” Peters told Brady in an email provided to Target 12. “Seems as though you are asking the opposite.” Peters also assured her that she would have personal protective equipment including masks and a face shield.

Hart said teachers who have underlying conditions themselves were prioritized for the VLA.

“There is not an unlimited supply of teachers,” Hart said. “To add teachers to VLA as it is currently envisioned would mean taking them out of brick-and-mortar classrooms.”

Rahill said despite the issues, she does not regret signing her children up for the virtual academy.

“I wouldn’t have sent them to school regardless,” Rahill said. “But I wish they had planned better and did better for our kids. Our kids deserve so much better.”

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

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