Pawtucket officials defend distance learning

Pawtucket officials defend distance learning

PAWTUCKET – A call-out by Gov. Gina Raimondo last week criticizing the city’s distance learning plan did not sit well with local officials, who say the School Committee made the best possible decision available to them in keeping most students home.

Councilor Terry Mercer publicly backed the school board at an Oct. 7 council meeting, saying the governor’s assessment was “completely inaccurate” on several fronts, and he supports the committee entirely in its decision to have distance learning through the end of the calendar year.

“It is not OK that you are not opening the schools in Pawtucket,” said Raimondo, citing the long-term detrimental impacts on urban students from having continued distance learning.

Mercer took particular exception to Raimondo saying the youngest city students aren’t being served, saying pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students are doing in-person learning. Other inaccurate statements included one on students not being able to afford laptops, when every student has access to a Chromebook, and that the students of Pawtucket are missing meals, when they’re still getting breakfasts, lunches, and weekend meals, he said.

The rhetoric implying that Pawtucket leaders are throwing their students under the bus by creating lifelong hardships, with the governor leading families and teachers to believe that elected officials are failing them by being “wrongheaded and racially insensitive,” does significant damage to the psyche of students, he said, and is “outrageous."

Other council members agreed with Mercer, saying they trust the school board to make decisions based on Pawtucket’s unique needs.

School Committee Chairman Jay Charbonneau said he too would like to see his children back in the city’s public schools. While not ideal, he said, he believes the distance learning curriculum is solid.

“I believe our students, teachers, staff and administrators are doing a remarkable job,” he said. “In addition, we have handed out close to 7,000 laptops and 400 hotspots to ensure everyone has the equipment necessary to be successful. This goes to the core of equity.”

The district is serving and handing out meals daily as well as supplying grab-and-go weekend meals, he said, and he is seeing his own children being more engaged.

School officials are basing decisions off of the state’s own guidance and direction, he said, providing The Breeze with screenshots detailing state walkthroughs of schools. One such inspection showed “critical issues” such as electrical systems that can’t support fans in each room, no filtered fresh air due to a cabinet heating system, and no social distancing possible in classrooms due to limited square footage.

Pawtucket has had young students and students in special needs populations back in school since September, Charbonneau said, making the district one of the quickest to return students.

While Warwick was praised by Raimondo for getting younger students back in school last week, the Rhode Island Department of Health website says to allow in-person return “if elementary or middle can guarantee stable groups” of no more than 30, including staff and students, said Charbonneau.

“Based off these walkthrough notes, is anyone in Pawtucket willing to guarantee that?” he said. “Not to mention the lack of substitute issue."

With only four buildings open as of Oct. 7, the district had a test-positive rate of roughly 10 percent from schools.

“Imagine if we had the other 12 buildings open,” said Charbonneau. “This decision wasn’t made easily or in haste. It was made with the safety of our students, teachers, staff, and residents of Pawtucket in mind.”

Supt. Cheryl McWilliams said distance learning has been enhanced from what it was in the spring, with a consistent schedule and significant curriculum enhancements. She cited structured and consistent daily schedules, consistency with state guidelines on screen time.

She said the district has achieved consistencies with Google Classroom and Google Meets, implemented a new IReady diagnostic program gauging student academic needs and allowing teachers to adapt instruction, developed new resources to support and supplement learning, scheduled small group and one-on-one instruction, and created a new culturally responsive ELA curriculum and interactive platforms for grades 3-12 among others.

The district has personalized computer-based intervention that is interactive and adaptive to their needs, committed to closely monitor distance learning effectiveness and adapt strategies as needed, and is doing ongoing research and evidence-based professional development for educators, she said.

John Baxter, a Pawtucket father, former school board member, and top staffer for the Rhode Island Senate, echoed Raimondo’s statements last week that “it’s not OK” that schools haven’t been reopened, agreeing with her that distance learning will cause long-term and irreparable damage on the educational welfare of students.

“As a parent of a Pawtucket student, spouse of a Pawtucket teacher, former member of the Pawtucket School Committee and a frontline state employee, I cannot help but question the actions of the Pawtucket School Department in light of what we are witnessing statewide,” he wrote. “It’s not possible to replicate the classroom experience on a virtual level. The virtual experience renders devoid the creative dynamics teachers employ to engage their students.”

Baxter called the effort “a fool’s errand,” citing numerous issues.

Councilor Meghan Kallman said last week that she agrees fully with Mercer’s assessment of the governor’s comments, saying the city is seeing way more COVID-19 cases than others at 159 per 100,000 people. In Pawtucket, states a chart from Charbonneau, total cases for in-person staff and students was at 11 through Oct. 3, with 66 staff and 92 students quarantined.

Despite the upgrades that have been made, said Kallman, schools still aren’t where they need to be for this urban core community that doesn’t get the funding it deserves. She said Pawtucket’s context is different, and “lives are not expendable.”

Implying that the city isn’t making reasoned and informed decisions based on its particular needs is both “unhelpful and unjust,” she added.

Other councilors, including Council President David Moran and Councilors Mark Wildenhain and Michael Araujo agreed, saying they trust school officials with these decisions and no decisions are being made lightly.