PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) ─ Almost nothing is certain right now about how Providence elementary and middle school kids will go to school this fall, including whether they’ll go to class in person, eat in a cafeteria, go to recess, take a bus, or even whether they’ll attend the same school they went to last year.
“We’ve got some tough decisions before us,” Providence Superintendent Harrison Peters told hundreds of kindergarten through 8th grade parents during a Zoom town hall Wednesday night.
The town hall garnered more than a thousand comments in the chat function from parents, who asked questions about busing, safety, and the possibility that students will all attend their neighborhood schools next year.
The neighborhood school scenario is triggered by the shortage of school buses, after state guidance regarding social distancing made it clear that buses will need to have way less capacity. There are not enough buses and drivers to meet the need, according to Peters.
Providence currently only provides yellow school buses to K-8 students. The three options for those grade levels, as laid out by Peters, would be:
- Option 1: Keep K-6 students at their current school, providing buses with staggered school start times and longer walks to new bus stops. 7th and 8th graders would do distance learning.
- Option 2: Move all elementary (K-5) students to their neighborhood school, allowing more students to walk. Keep middle school students at their current schools with regular bus stops, and staggered start times.
- Option 3: Move all K-8 students to their neighborhood school, allowing many to walk. Use regular bus stops.
While many Providence students do attend the school closest to their home, parents have the option to enter a lottery to send their kids to other schools in the district. School assignments are given out via the lottery preference system at the start of elementary, middle and high school.
About 80% of the seats in a given school are reserved for students from the neighborhood, and 20% are from other parts of the city.
Moving all K-8 students to their neighborhood school — typically within one mile of their home, or the closest school to their home — would affect more than 3,000 students who go to schools in other parts of the city.
Students in specialized programs (including special education or the Leviton dual language program, for example) or who already attend a school within one mile of their home (but not necessarily the closest school) would be allowed to stay in their current school under this plan.
Peters said there could be case-by-case exceptions, such as for students who were already transferred out of their neighborhood school for a specific reason such as a documented safety issue.
In the chat function, many parents expressed outrage at their child potentially being forced to change schools, asking Peters if they could just drive their child to their current school instead of using the school bus.
“We’re looking at that possibility,” Peters said in response. “We also want to be fair to all families. Not everyone has a personal transportation or personal vehicle. So we do not want to bump someone from a school across the street to accommodate another family. And I look at this, quite frankly, as a matter of equity.”
Responding to questions about mask-wearing, Peters said he did not anticipate students being required to wear masks while within their stable groups. Students are expected to remain in their group at all times without mingling with other students, which could mean eating lunch in the classroom, Peters said.
Spokesperson Laura Hart said adults will be wearing masks.
All of this is under the assumption school will actually take place in person, which is still in question. Gov. Gina Raimondo announced a goal for the entire state to send kids back to school on August 31, but districts were told to submit three different plans to the R.I. Department of Education by July 17 including contingencies for in-person schooling, distance learning, and a hybrid model.
In Providence, Peters said if group sizes need to be smaller than current class sizes they might create an “A-B” schedule, with group A attending school one week, then swapping and distance learning the next week.
If any student in a group tests positive for COVID-19, the whole class would quarantine for two weeks and do distance learning.
Parents also asked whether they could choose to continue distance learning, even if school goes back fully in person. Peters said the district was looking into that option.
He urged parents to fill out a new survey and email any suggestions to innovate@PPSD.org.
A separate presentation is planned for Providence high schools later this month.
“Students will be learning in the fall,” Peters said. “Life doesn’t give students a COVID pass.”