With a new leader, Providence schools ramp up for distance learning

Coronavirus

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Harrison Peters had only been on the job as Providence’s superintendent for three weeks when Gov. Gina Raimondo shut down all the state’s public schools amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

Now, Peters is leading an effort to hand out Chromebooks to thousands of students — and get WiFi set up for those who don’t have it — so the district can teach its 24,000 students remotely. The switch to distance learning comes just as the state-controlled district was gearing up to release and implement a new turnaround plan in April.

“This is what I signed up for,” said Peters, who came to Providence last month from the Hillsborough County School District in Florida. “I’m excited to be here. No buyer’s remorse.”

In an interview Wednesday, Peters said the schools started sending kids home with Chromebooks on Friday, and families have also been picking up devices this week. The district is working with Cox to provide WiFi to those who don’t have it, and teachers are preparing lessons online using the existing curriculum.

Part of the challenge with remote learning is serving students who are English learners or who have IEPs — individualized education plans — and receive special services at school. Peters said many of those services are being translated to the digital learning space.

“We’ve got bilingual plans,” Peters said. “We tried to leave no stone unturned … Our occupational therapy folks, our physical therapy folks are all online.”

Providence has some experience with providing “compensatory services” for students with disabilities after a length break from school; they had to do it after a two-week school bus driver strike in 2018. But this time, there’s no sense of how long students will be out of school.

“There is a plan to sort of do some in-person support, but that’s going to come at a later date,” Peters said. “We don’t know the runway of this crisis. … If it’s a longer sort of crisis, we’ll do some in-person support.” (His spokesperson, Laura Hart, clarified that in-person services would only take place down the line if there was no health risk.)

Peters said the coronavirus is not going to slow down the timeline for the state to implement its effort to reverse some of the issues detailed in the Johns Hopkins report last summer.

“We fully expect to have an initial draft of the turnaround plan by the end of April,” Peters said. “We’ve got to be prepared for the short-term sprint, but we’ve also got to keep our eyes on the long-term marathon.”

Some action items in the turnaround — like the new curriculum — weren’t set to go into effect until next school year anyway, Peters said.

Hart declined to provide a copy of the district’s remote learning plan, which has been submitted to the R.I. Department of Education, until it is approved and finalized. But Peters said the full plan will be made public online.

Pete Janhunen, a spokesperson for RIDE, said two-thirds of public school districts had submitted their plans as of Wednesday afternoon, with the due date set for Thursday.

Raimondo announced Wednesday that schools would remain closed until April 3, with two weeks of distance learning. She acknowledged that it was “unlikely” schools would reopen after that date, but said the state would assess how remote learning was going before making a decision to continue past the two weeks.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it. This is different,” Raimondo said. “I think we’re ready to do it.”

She urged students to “spend as much time, as much effort as you would if you were in school” during the upcoming distance learning days.

Some districts started sending out details to students on Wednesday, including the Bristol-Warren school district, which indicated teachers would be taking attendance and checking that students are logged on to the online portals.

“This is not two weeks of extended vacation,” Raimondo said.

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

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