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PPSD starts third year amid pandemic

Teachers, students discuss concerns, hopes for full-time in-person learning with COVID-19 mitigation strategies in place

The Providence Public School District began its third academic year amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic Sept. 9. For the first time since March 2020, all students and staff across the city returned for full-time in-person learning, according to Victor Morente, director of communications for the Rhode Island Department of Education.

As infection rates in the city and state remain high, many COVID-19 safety policies will stay in place for the fall. “The health and safety of our students and staff remains our number one priority,” Morente wrote in an email to The Herald. “PPSD will continue to implement an aggressive, multi-layered COVID mitigation strategy this school year.” 

These COVID-19 prevention measures include universal masking, social distancing, cleaning and hygiene protocols, in-school vaccine clinics and asymptomatic testing, according to guidelines released by RIDE and PPSD.

PPSD teachers and students shared excitement for a return to a more typical school life, but they also voiced concerns about the safety and efficacy of the return plan.

“There are mixed feelings. I think that teachers are grateful to have a contract and be back in school, but I think that there’s ongoing concern and growing concern over masking and vaccinations and the Delta and the Mu variants, and how they may impact our schools in the coming weeks and months,” said Maribeth Calabro, president of Providence Teachers Union.

“I’m deeply concerned about the conditions that we’re opening in,” Maya Chavez, a social studies teacher at Alvarez High School, said. With 27 students in her classroom, physical distancing is not possible, she added.

Last school year, PPSD schools had hybrid and remote learning options to allow for reduced capacity in the buildings, according to Calabro. Without a remote option this year, Chavez and Calabro said they are worried about overcrowded classrooms and learning losses for students who may have to quarantine.

With vaccines not yet approved for children under 12 and no vaccine mandates for eligible students or staff on the state or city level, Calabro and Chavez said they worry about potential spread among unvaccinated individuals and the threat of breakthrough cases.

Both Chavez and Calabro said that they did not feel that RIDE and PPSD teachers had a significant enough voice in designing the return plan.

“There’s a sense of powerlessness and desperation,” Chavez said. “I think we feel a little bit incredulous that these really are the conditions, that there’s such indifference for the lives and health of our students and family members. It is truly shocking.”

“I don’t believe that they consulted teachers adequately — if at all — to be quite frank,” Calabro added. “I know they didn’t acknowledge or ask the union what their input might be in terms of a safe return to school.”

In response to concerns, Morente wrote, “the District greatly appreciates feedback from our school community. In August, PPSD leadership held two Back2School town halls (one in English and one in Spanish) to answer families’ questions about our health and safety guidance. Families are always encouraged to reach out to the Office of Family and Community Engagement with questions or concerns.”

For PPSD students, the school days on Thursday and Friday contrasted the socially-distanced and remote learning of the past two years. Two Classical High School seniors, Milly Asherov and Eva Matos, said there was palpable excitement among the student body.

“Going in and seeing everybody definitely made the environment a lot better,” Matos said. “I’m more excited for my classes, and I feel a lot better in my learning environment.”

“COVID protocol wise, there was definitely less than last year,” Asherov said, noting the lack of temperature checks and symptom questioning.

“I remember my first transition from homeroom to first period. The hallway was absolutely crowded, and I forgot that the hallways would get that congested,” she added.

Matos and Asherov shared some concern about crowdedness in school buildings but added they generally felt more safe than fearful.

Matos said she hopes to experience some traditional aspects of student life at Classical this year that she and her fellow students have missed out on since March 2020, like attending football games and donning togas for spirit week.

Both Asherov and Matos noted how online learning changed the tenor and demands of school. They said they hoped some of the flexibility their teachers demonstrated during the previous two school years of the pandemic would continue into the fall. According to Asherov, full-time in-person school is “a lot more work” than remote and hybrid learning.

School “has not been this type of real work since I was a sophomore,” Asherov said. “And now I’m a senior, so it kind of feels surreal.”


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