Providence public schools begin the 2021-2022 school year on Sept. 9. But amid rising COVID-19 levels, a new interim superintendent, a contentious Providence Teachers Union Contract negotiation and the continuing state takeover, Providence Public School District students find themselves in an uncertain position.
PPSD will be announcing its finalized plan for return soon and continues to consider CDC guidance, according to Victor Morente, director of communications for the Rhode Island Department of Education.
“RIDE is continuing to follow CDC guidance for the return to school this fall, including the recently-announced guidance that all persons wear a face mask in school irrespective of their vaccination status,” he wrote in an email to The Herald.
“Interim Superintendent Montañez is meeting with our operations and academic teams daily to ensure that PPSD has a safe, successful opening of schools this fall, and that we continue making progress towards the goals of our Turnaround Action Plan,” Audrey Lucas, PPSD spokesperson, wrote in an email to The Herald.
She also wrote that Zack Scott, deputy superintendent of operations, updated the Providence school board Wednesday on the district’s preparations for the fall.
To gauge the mood surrounding the return to school in Providence, The Herald spoke with three Classical High School students about their thoughts on the coming year.
“I feel pretty in the dark,” Demi Egunjobi, a rising sophomore, said of the new school year. “All I know is that we’re probably going back to full-time and masks are going to be required.”
“I'm not sure what's going to happen this year,” rising senior Bhintuna Maharjan said.
Milly Asherov, also a rising senior at Classical, felt similarly unsure, but cautiously optimistic about the upcoming semester. “I’m hoping that the COVID restrictions won't get in the way too much,” she said. “I also know that a lot of our students are vaccinated, so I’m wondering how that will play into all of this.”
Student uncertainty is due to the lack of knowledge among both students and administrators, which is caused by the ever-changing nature of the pandemic, Asherov added.
“From past experience working with the school district and Classical in general, there's not much that they themselves know about the return to school,” she said. “So I feel in the dark, but I also feel even with the school district.”
The pandemic has intensified mental health issues for many young people. The students expressed their desire that the new school year would seek to remedy these issues, not worsen them.
Asherov also said that the past year and a half has destigmatized discussing mental health.
“The main thing from the pandemic I'm hoping we take away is that behavioral and mental health issues have been widely affected,” she said. “They are something that has always been there, and a lot of students have always had to cope with them. But it's more on the surface level now ... it's okay to talk about it.”
Egunjobi said that increased academic leniency over the course of the pandemic made her transition to Classical last year easier.
“Everyone complained about how it was before and said how much better it became during the pandemic,” she said of the school’s academic pressure. “So I'm worried about what school will be like after.”
She said she hopes the flexibility demonstrated by her teachers last school year continues this upcoming year.
Precious Lopez, co-executive director of the Providence Student Union, said that before the start of the year, schools must take a metaphorical “temperature check” of the emotional well-being of their student body.
Lopez added that schools must have conversations around mental health and personal comfort with students, “because they are the ones that are going to be heavily impacted by coming back to school,” along with teachers and administrators.
“We are going to work closely with our districts to ensure that they have the support they need to make a full return to school in a way that is safe for students, educators and families,” Morente wrote.
“Community feedback is a crucial part of RIDE’s plan to return to school in-person,” Morente added.
RIDE hosted community engagement meetings over the summer to determine the specific needs of district members, according to Morente. RIDE plans to use the information gathered from these meetings to improve student learning going forward, he wrote.
As she looks toward the new school year, Asherov said she feels hopeful about the appointment of interim superintendent Javier Montañez. “I’m really happy that he’s from Providence,” she said, adding that Montañez has taken initiative to directly engage with students since “day one.”
“I’m hoping having someone from here (as superintendent) will empower every person on every level of the system, however you interact with Providence public schools, to actually get stuff done,” she said. It remains unclear if Montañez will still be in his position come September. Asherov said that when a new permanent superintendent is selected, she hopes they are also from Providence.
Clarification: Due to a publishing error, the last four paragraphs of this story were omitted. The article has been updated to include them.