‘Virtual learning academy’ to be part of Providence schools reopening plan

School Updates

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — When Providence students and teachers go back to school in person this August, those who need to keep learning or teaching from home for medical reasons are expected to be part of a new virtual learning academy, Superintendent Harrison Peters said in an interview Wednesday.

The academy is in the works as part of the district’s reopening plan, a draft of which is due to the state on Friday. Peters said the district is currently aiming to bring all students back to school in person — other than those who join the virtual academy — with multiple contingency and hybrid plans if the situation with the pandemic changes.

“We miss our students, and we want them all back,” Peters said. “And that’s what we’re planning for.”

During a Zoom town hall attended by nearly 1,000 parents Wednesday night, Peters backed off a previous proposal to consider moving elementary and middle school students to their neighborhood schools closest to their homes, which had been pitched as a solution to the lack of extra buses available to meet the reduced capacity guidelines.

The proposal caused an uproar last month, as parents questioned why they wouldn’t just be able to drive their students to their current school in order to avoid them being moved.

“That was not a popular decision,” Peters acknowledged. “We heard you … we’re not going to displace any students from their current school.”

Transportation options are now being worked out, and the district is looking at staggered start times so buses can make multiple runs and be cleaned in between each group of students. Parents will also be given the option to opt out of using the school bus.

The reopening plan will also include mandatory masks in certain areas — such as hallways and at arrival and dismissal — as well as a daily requirement for parents to attest that their students don’t have symptoms before sending them to school. (Bus monitors will also ask students if they have symptoms.)

The Fall River linen company Matouk is stepping up to help the district with the thousands of masks needed for the students and staff. The company started making masks with its fabric in March, as the demand from hotels and retailers for bedding and bath products sharply decreased.

“Luckily we had the materials here to do it, because this cotton sheeting we use for our products is really effective for reusable cotton masks,” said George Matouk, the CEO of the company. “By the end of March here in Fall River we were producing 10,000 masks a week.”

The company is making 50,000 cloth face masks for Providence schools — which are embroidered with the district logo — and donating them for free. Matouk said he and his wife Mindy Matouk, the company’s creative director, live in Providence and reached out to Peters and Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green to offer them the masks.

“We are so thankful and appreciative for this amazing gift,” Peters said. The free masks will save the district tens of thousands of dollars in funds allocated for COVID costs, which can now be reallocated to buy more hand sanitizer or cover other costs related to the pandemic.

While the mask guidance is subject to change based on CDC or R.I. Department of Health protocols, Peters said the current plan is for students to wear masks on the school bus, during arrival and dismissal and in common areas such as hallways where six feet of separation is not guaranteed. Students and staff will not be required to wear masks inside their classroom’s “stable group,” though the face coverings will be recommended.

Masks will not be required for students who cannot developmentally keep the covering on their faces, or when breathing may be inhibited.

The size of the stable group will depend on whether the district ultimately goes with Plan A or B for in-person reopening. The R.I. Department of Education is requiring districts to submit three draft plans to the state by Friday — Plan A for full in-person learning, Plan B for partial and/or limited in-person learning, and Plan C for full distance learning.

In the full in-person and partial in-person scenario for Providence, guidance released Wednesday says the stable groups for kindergarten through 8th grade would be 30 people including adults. But the “limited” in-person plan would have 15-person groups.

In high school, where students typically rotate classes for different subjects. Peters said it’s not out of the question that students will still rotate, but other scenarios include rotating teachers or having students learn the same subject for several weeks at a time before moving on to another subject, allowing them to stay in stable groups for weeks before rotating to a new class.

The newly released health guidance says the “partial” in-person scenario would call for 50% capacity in high schools, while the “limited” in-person scenario would have 15-person stable groups. The full in-person scenario would allow 100% of high school students to be in-person and potentially rotate classes, though masks would be required if groups are not stable.

If a student tests positive for COVID-19, the entire class would likely go into quarantine and temporarily switch to virtual learning, Peters said.

Peters said the district has not determined whether students will be able to join the virtual learning academy simply because their parents aren’t comfortable with sending them back to school, as opposed to only if they are immunocompromised.

Plans for lunch are also still in the works, but Peters said it’s likely students will eat in their classrooms instead of a cafeteria. Stable groups may also be assigned specific bathrooms to use or even bathroom times, with custodians cleaning the bathrooms in between groups.

Lockers will also not be used, according to the new guidance. Students will carry their belongings for the day in their backpacks. Seats will be assigned on buses and in classrooms.

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

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