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Metro, News

Pawtucket community calls for reopening of district’s schools for in-person learning

Black Lives Matter Rhode Island among groups urging Pawtucket School Committee to bring students back to school

By
Staff Writer
Thursday, February 4, 2021

While leaders in BLM RI are calling for Pawtucket schools to reopen, others are not sure it is the right choice.

Pawtucket, which has Rhode Island’s highest population of Black students, remains the only city in the state without an in-person learning plan for the semester. 

The Pawtucket School Committee recently resolved to keep schools closed for in-person learning until September, despite calls from the Rhode Island Department of Education and community organizations including Black Lives Matter Rhode Island for the district to open classrooms sooner, according to Founder and Executive Director of BLM RI Brother Gary Dantzler, who is also the father of three children in the Pawtucket school system. 

“It’s embarrassing for the community,” Dantzler said. “These young Black kids are suffering; these minority kids are suffering.” Because of the city’s large minority population, Dantzler thinks that the School Committee’s lack of a reopening plan is rooted in systemic inequality.

The School Committee is unwilling to act “because of the Black kids,” Dantzler said. “What are we supposed to say, that they’re doing this because of COVID? The rate of COVID in schools is low; if it was high, kids in other districts wouldn’t be in school right now.”

The problems in the Pawtucket School District extend beyond its current lack of a reopening plan. According to RIDE, while 66 percent of the district’s students identify as non-white, only 10 percent of its teachers do. 

Pawtucket has also historically underperformed in state-wide assessments, according to a Jan. 16 presentation by RIDE reviewed by The Herald: 86 percent of Black and Hispanic students did not meet performance expectations on math assignments in the 2018-19 school year, and a similar number did not meet English language arts performance expectations. 

But others dispute the idea that a return to in-person learning would be better for everyone. “A reset now with new students, new challenges and a new setting starts (teachers) back at square one” after they just adapted to virtual teaching, Deputy Chairperson of the Pawtucket School Committee Erin Dube wrote in an email to the Herald, adding that the district’s teachers have been receiving professional development training and developing virtual teaching strategies utilizing online programs such as Zoom.

Additionally, not all of the district’s students are learning remotely, Dube said. “We have our special-needs … students in school, as well as our English Language Learners and our (Pre-Kindergarteners) and (Kindergarteners).”

But for Dantzler, this is not enough. BLM RI released a public statement calling for the reopening of schools and plans to hold a protest Saturday in conjunction with the Pawtucket Parents Alliance. They hope these efforts will put further pressure on the School Committee to consider their demands, especially after BLM RI was unable to comment at the Jan. 12 meeting when the decision to keep schools closed was announced.

BLM RI Policy Advocate Bernice Morris said that while she, Dantzler and a few oher community members were at the Jan. 12 meeting, which was held virtually, they were not allowed to “make public comment, although Black Lives Matter Rhode Island was prepared to.”

Dantzler added that his three children’s online learning experience has been nothing short of miserable. “I’m honestly watching my kids break down,” he said. “It’s like they’re in prison.”

He sympathizes greatly with students attempting to complete their schooling through remote learning. “They’re getting bored very fast, they’re getting agitated,” Dantzler said of his own children. “Some of the teachers are not being sensitive to these kids, they’re writing them up, brothers and sisters are fighting with each other, they’re having meltdowns, breakdowns. It’s hard for these kids today.”

But Dube wrote that in-person learning in a post-COVID world may have isolating effects similar to those of online learning. “Learning in a class socially-distanced from your friends, often on a computer screen, is not conducive to building social skills,” she wrote. 

Moreover, Dube believes the return to classrooms is unlikely to be a smooth transition and may cause further confusion for families. “The unpredictability of quarantines and the need to keep students out of school, for even mild symptoms like allergies, hamper working class parents who do not have the flexibility to be suddenly taking days off,” she wrote.

The Pawtucket School Committee believes that “in the midst of a chaotic time, we should be looking to find a consistent way to deliver education,” Dube wrote, concluding that the online learning model offers that consistency in a way in-person learning cannot guarantee.

But members of BLM RI feel that the School Committee is failing to take into account the views of not only RIDE, but also local parents and families. 

“When the city asked parents, 70 percent said that they would choose in-person learning if they had access to it,” Morris said. “That had no bearing on what the school committee decided to do, unanimously deciding to say, ‘We’ll see you in September.’” 

According to Dube, a separate “district-wide” survey conducted by the committee showed inconclusive levels of support  from parents regarding in-person learning for the spring semester. 

Ultimately, BLM RIs line is simple: “It is the right thing to do to open schools for kids that need it, period,” Morris said.

The Pawtucket School Committee will vote again on whether to reopen schools at a committee meeting on Feb. 9. 

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