RI still learning what next school year will look like

Education

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — No school district has ever had to experience what is happening right now, with students and teachers all trying to continue education from home due to COVID-19.

Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green says officials are still determining what the next school year will look like. She said one thing they do know is that learning will continue in some — or rather multiple — forms.

Infante-Green and Deputy Commissioner Ana Riley virtually updated the Rhode Island House Committee on Health, Education and Welfare Wednesday night as committee members asked questions from the House Lounge of the State House.

Riley said the emphasis is on returning children in kindergarten through 5th grade to the physical school setting. She said they’re finding that age group needs in-person instruction the most.

Based on a survey with about 7,500 responses from parents and students, 500 of which were in Spanish, Riley said about 90% found strengths in the flexibility of remote learning.

She said the older students especially seemed to enjoy being able to finish their assignments at any time of the day — even 2 a.m. — but that in the future, there will need to be more unification in the structure teachers have while remote learning if it continues.

The goal for the next school year is to get as many students back in school as possible this fall, while still being safe. Infante-Green said while the state will be providing “guardrails” for districts to follow, the style of learning will depend largely on what works best for each district.

For example, Central Falls, which she said has one of the highest rates of COVID-19 infection among a Latino community in the country, may have a different setup than another district with fewer cases. She said Central Falls and parts of Providence have higher rates, and she acknowledged that it’s difficult in these areas for children to even self-quarantine, due to the small apartments where they live with several family members.

The next school year will still be based on a 180-school-day model and will have the same number of instructional hours as usual, but it will all be flexible.

The commissioner described the availability of a hybrid model of learning statewide — at all times, there will be a remote learning alternative to the traditional style of classroom education. That will be used if a child, teacher, or even whole a classroom needs to quarantine — allowing education to continue.

State Rep. Susan Donovan of Bristol asked, “When you look towards a hybrid model, do you mean that the regular classroom is going on and they can listen in on the instruction? Is that possible?”

Infante-Green responded, “There are different models, so one of them is that. We’ve been talking to superintendents and they’re thinking one of them would be that the student could listen in and still be part of that. Or, it could be that the whole class quarantines and everybody does distance learning for that period of time if the child came in contact. Or, it could be that there’s a child dedicated to 4th grade, 5th grade, 6th grade, 7th grade, whatever the case may be, that is having distance learning the entire time and the kids come in and out.”

The state is looking at utilizing staff for different roles in order to still practice social distancing and keep teachers safe, especially those at most risk.

As for funding, the state has received federal stimulus funding in recent months to assist with education costs. Applications for districts to get a piece of that money will be sent out in the next week or so, RIDE expects, and after that, the districts will get their designated money.

State Rep. Gregg Amore, an East Providence Democrat, brought up how the funding would be doled out for title programs.

“The title money, that’s approximately $42 million, and about $3.5 million is designated to charters, but we know at least one charter that received PPP money through the federal loan program, and I assume there are more charters that received PPP money,” he said.

“Will that PPP money serve as a placement instead of the title money that’s designated to those charters? How’s the department going to deal with the charters that have received PPP?” he asked. “Because, as you know, traditional public schools did not have access to that PPP.”

The commissioner responded by saying they were aware of the issue and were waiting for clarity from the federal government to give them more guidance on how to dole out the title funding. 

Separately on Thursday, Gov. Gina Raimondo said at her regularly scheduled coronavirus briefing that she plans to offer more guidance next week on the plan for reopening schools.

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