A powerful example of how even a deeply challenged region was able to keep schools open.

February 23, 2021
Children participating in safe learning

What follows is a summary. Click to read the original article from The New York Times.

Providence provides a powerful example of how, with support from state leadership, even a deeply challenged region can keep schools open. It wasn’t easy; it wasn’t pretty; but they were able to provide in-person school for kids.

In September, Providence, a large, urban district of 22,600 students  in a blue state, not only opened its schools to in-person learning but also offered instruction five days a week to every elementary student, plus hybrid instruction to middle and high-school students whose parents chose to send them. (A separate virtual academy was set up for students whose parents preferred to keep them home.) 

The district is 68% Latino and 15% Black, and a dense metropolitan area, with extensive multigenerational housing. School infrastructure is in such grim condition that the Johns Hopkins review reported that the worst of the buildings “reduced seasoned members of the review team to tears.” 

Even with those concerns, since September the majority of the city’s kids could see their teachers and classmates, either every day or at least two days a week.

70 percent of Providence families chose to return their children to school by October and teachers showed up, though there wasn’t yet on-site testing or vaccines. (The state now offers asymptomatic, on-site testing at every school.)

They delayed the start of the fall opening by only 2 weeks to train. 

In one school, on the first day they were open a staff member tested positive, meaning that all those who had worked with her had to quarantine.  They were flustered but they hustled and found substitute administrators. Teachers were stressed but they showed up to work. 

Administrators acknowledged teachers concerns and empathized without wavering on the conviction to keep schools open.

Administrators and teachers alike came to recognize that, no matter how much they trained, they might have to generate new systems on the fly.

By the end of the first semester, it was not ideal: 22 percent of all in-person learners had at least one incomplete in a class. But the number was even worse for virtual learners, 37 percent of whom had at least one incomplete.

If a more transmissible variant takes hold in the United States, administrators and government leaders will have to take in the competing demands of their communities, to read the tolerance for risk, to try to calculate the cost of school closings — and determine whether creative, aggressive mitigation strategies can make it possible to provide in-person education.

Administrators in Rhode Island acknowledge many of the challenges of the past months, while maintaining that the effort was justified. There were times when some wished that the district had closed the school, if only because there was so much fear; but by now, they felt they could face most situations as they arose. “We know what to do,” they said; and they would keep doing it.

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