PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Parents and teachers went before the R.I. Council on Elementary and Secondary Education on Tuesday night to request a distance-learning option in K-12 schools amid the latest spike in COVID cases.
Many raised issues with what they said many schools are experiencing across the state: low attendance levels, high transmission and poor mitigation efforts.
Meanwhile, Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green said the safest place for children to be is in school, and it’s their goal to keep students learning in person.
“I’m asking for an option for distance learning. I’m asking for an option for people who need their kids in school, to have their kids in school. I believe that both are 100% warranted,” said Jennifer Armstrong, a parent and teacher in Rhode Island.
In the meeting’s public comment portion, close to 20 people signed up to share their opinions. Some of them were teachers, who provided a glimpse into what their classrooms have been like after the holiday break.
“We were forced to emergency dismiss students on Thursday morning because we undeniably had internal spread. An entire kindergarten class, 100% of students tested positive, four out of six kindergarten teachers were positive,” said Stephanie Meuse, a teacher in Central Falls. “We had N-95s, my school has air purifiers in every classroom, we have most students eating lunch in classrooms to avoid crowded cafeteria spaces … COVID still spread in our school.”
Meuse said attendance has dropped in her class, the lowest she’s seen during the pandemic.
“Sixteen out of 22 students have already missed more than 10% of the school year. Out of less than 75 days of school, I have had three students miss over 25 of them. It is nothing like I have ever seen before, including when we were 100% remote,” she said
One parent was in favor of in-person learning, arguing that it’s better for students to be in classrooms for their mental health, and allows parents to go to work.
“My children’s school has been, I feel, a very safe environment for them,” Erica Lambert said. “They’re learning and my husband and I can continue to do our jobs.”
Other parents said they wished mitigation efforts would improve in schools. Bruce Boucek said his son won’t be returning to the classroom until he’s boosted and transmission levels decrease.
“So many of the things that we were promised as parents that were supposed to happen last year, with regard to updating our schools, and making their air systems better and fixing infrastructure, never happened,” Boucek said. “Stop lying to us about that stuff. You are not keeping our children safe.”
At the start of the meeting, Infante-Green reiterated her stance on in-person learning, stating that it’s the safest and best option.
“Our goal remains the same: to keep students in school where they learn best and ensure their safety and health,” she said.
At the end of the meeting, the council moved to give the Infante-Green the power to grant virtual learning days to count as school days.
It was voted on with the understanding that RIDE would get information to superintendents by Thursday of what will be allowable to go virtual, such as low staffing levels, without having RIDE decide whether or not the day counts.
On Monday, the state’s largest teachers union called for a move to distance learning until next week, the same day new COVID guidance for K-12 schools went into effect.