PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A new Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC) report released on Tuesday is raising concerns about increased inequity in public schools across the state since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

The report analyzes key aspects of the educational experience in R.I. public schools during the pandemic and provides a full picture of the reopening status in the state’s 36 districts.

According to the report, even though Gov. Gina Raimondo called for all elementary and secondary public schools to be open by Oct. 13, only nine districts were fully open by that date.

RIPEC said about one-third of students had access to full in-person learning by Oct. 13, while about half had partial access, and about one-eighth had no access to in-person learning.

The districts that have fully reopened are “suburban and rural districts in higher-income areas of the state, whereas many urban districts in lower-income communities are relying more heavily on distance learning,” the report read.

The report says that the least open districts in the Ocean State are also among the state’s lowest-performing.

“While there are major public health and operational challenges to reopening our public schools, it should not be acceptable to policymakers that the students most likely to be denied access to in-person instruction are already experiencing low proficiency rates,” RIPEC President and CEO Michael DiBiase said. “They can least afford to suffer the learning loss expected to result from distance learning.”

RIPEC’s report also said there are a lot of distance learning strategies being used which is likely resulting in varying student outcomes.

Student access to technology has improved since the spring, according to RIPEC, but internet access does not appear to have received the same attention as access to devices. The report also says there “appears to be no statewide accounting to identify the full extent to which gaps in student access to technology remain.”

RIPEC’s report reviewed the fiscal year 2020 educational funding and found $50 million more in total was made available to public schools under the supplemental budget than was appropriated under the enacted budget, with lower-income districts receiving the larger portion of this additional aid.

In the report, RIPEC recommends the need for a bigger discussion as to whether the current model for public education in Rhode Island provides the best outcomes for all students.

“The decentralized structure of our current system essentially preordained that schools would struggle to respond to a major challenge of the kind presented by the pandemic,” said DiBiase. “While RIDE issued guidance and advice, and required reopening plans, the actual mechanics of reopening and distance learning were largely left to the educational leaders, school committees, and governing boards for 36 different school districts, 23 charter schools, and five state schools.”

RIPEC has offered short-term and long-term policy recommendations for consideration:

Short-term policy recommendations

  • Seek to expand in-person instruction to promote greater equity between districts, and appropriate additional funding to the extent needed to advance this goal
  • Ensure that every student has access to a suitable device and broadband
  • Encourage educational leaders to modify distance learning methods to align with best practices
  • Require all teachers engaged in delivering remote instruction to receive professional development in distance learning
  • Require greater transparency regarding key elements of public-school operations during the pandemic

Long-term policy recommendations

  • Enable Rhode Island public schools to build proficiency in distance learning
  • Determine whether the decentralized structure of Rhode Island’s public education system delivers the best outcomes for all students