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‘I just want my children to be safe’: Providence Public School District parents on school reopening

Parents worry about social distancing, airflow, transparency issues

As their children began school Sept. 14, Providence Public School District parents expressed concerns about what the year will bring.

Whether instruction for the school year begins in person, online or hybrid differs by grade and follows the evolution of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. At the beginning of the school year, the district was planning on phasing its in-person reopening process until October.

As of late August, 95 percent of school districts in the United States had announced their reopening plans, and almost half of them were planning to start the year fully in person. Providence joins the 12 percent of districts nationwide starting the school year in a hybrid model.

Public health guidelines established by the Rhode Island Department of Health guided the decision. As of Aug. 31, Providence and Central Falls were the only RI school districts reporting over 100 new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents per week — surpassing the threshold for whether a school district is allowed to reopen.

Classroom conditions: social distancing, airflow

Before schools moved forward with reopening, Rhode Island Department of Education staff members performed “walkthroughs” of each school building to ensure that they met public health standards set by the Rhode Island Department of Health, checked for access to hand sanitizers, fans for improved airflow and signage explaining proper hand-washing, nose-blowing and coughing etiquette.

Jenna Karlin, the mother of two kids in the dual language program at Carl G. Lauro Elementary School in Providence, said she was troubled by the Providence Public School District's lack of transparency when it came to explaining the specifics of in-person classroom learning. This led her to organize a Sept. 9 protest which brought together PPSD parents with similar concerns.

In a Sept. 11 interview with The Herald, Karlin raised concerns that the results of these walkthroughs had not yet been released. The district did not release the results until Sept. 13, one day before the schools opened.

According to the reports, many schools had not met certain standards such as access to soap and water or appropriate distancing between seats at the time of the walkthroughs, which took place between Sept. 3 and Sept. 8. These measures were declared as "in progress" or negative in the reports for some schools.

PPSD Spokeswoman Laura Hart '87 told Target 12 News at WPRI that “movers have helped schools arrange classrooms to maximize social distance,” adding that in elementary schools, “students in stable groups do not have to be seated six feet apart, according to health guidance.” In addition, “every school has enough face shields to give children an added layer of protection,” Hart said.

Hart did not respond to multiple requests for comment on parents’ concerns about air circulation in buildings, the possibility of social distancing in the classroom and lack of clear, specific communication from PPSD on what classroom conditions will look like.

Helena Dahn, the mother of a sixth grader and an eighth grader, voiced concerns about the structure of classrooms and the space between desks. "I just want my children to be safe."

Air quality was another concern for Karlin, as many schools, including her children's, do not have a heating, ventilation and air conditioning system installed. "The district is supplementing its HVAC systems with open windows and fans" for classrooms without one, according to the district website

Tara Nummedal is a professor of history at Brown and a mother to a 6th grader at Nathan Bishop Middle School. Like Karlin, Nummedal worries about in-classroom air quality.

“Is it enough to put a box fan in the window?” asked Nummedal, who said the district was so focused on the logistics of getting students to school and sanitizing surfaces that they “didn't quite catch up to that set of concerns” regarding air quality. 

First day hurdles

Despite her concerns, Karlin is sending her kids back to school. She said she was more comfortable after learning that her children were in classes with 13 to 14 students. "At least for the moment, I feel like it is a reasonable risk to have them attend school in the classroom solely because of class size."

Nummedal described her daughter’s first day with remote learning as fraught with challenges. For example, her daughter lacked access codes for the Google classrooms in her first and second period classes. “It was a really hard day for us and I don't think it needed to be that way,” she said.

In spite of the first day problems, Nummedal “was really impressed with the way Harrison Peters, the superintendent, was always factoring equity into these decision-making processes.” She cited busing as one of the areas where the district had been particularly attuned to equity and accessibility issues.

Nummedal stressed that outside factors can make planning for a successful school year more difficult. “Good health underpins everything right now,” she said. “At the moment I feel ok (about reopening), but I realize that it could so easily fall apart again.”

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