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When Providence students return to classes, they could be in a different school

District officials are trying to cut down on school bus trips during the pandemic

The Providence School Department headquarters.
The Providence School Department headquarters.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE – Thousands of Providence public school students returning to classes in August could find themselves in a different school than the one they left, as district leaders try to have as few children as possible ride school buses during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a presentation to parents of students in elementary and middle schools scheduled for Monday evening, the district will present three reopening options that they are considering for the first day of school on Aug. 31.

Two of those options include requiring students to attend schools in their neighborhood rather than being bused to different parts of the city; a third option would keep children in their existing schools, but would not offer bus service to 7th and 8th graders.

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The district hasn’t come up with a plan for high school students yet, but yellow bus transportation isn’t provided to them. They take the RIPTA bus to school.

Laura Hart, a spokeswoman for the district, said a plan will be finalized by mid-July, but she said that the district will first seek input from parents and students. The three options came after the district hosted focus groups with parents.

“They have to understand that while there are options, our options are limited,” Hart said in an interview on Sunday. Teachers would not be asked to change schools under the district’s proposal.

Governor Gina Raimondo has said she wants every school in the state to reopen on Aug. 31, and districts are required to submit plans to the Rhode Island Department of Education that includes scenarios for all students to attend school in person, a move to full distance learning, and a hybrid option that incorporates some classroom learning and some distance learning.

Superintendents from across Rhode Island have said transportation will be their biggest challenge because the state’s coronavirus safety guidelines call for schools to dramatically reduce the number of students taking the bus to school. Buses will also have to be cleaned more frequently, adding to the district’s expenses

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Hart said Providence, which has 24,000 public school students, doesn’t have the ability to buy more school buses - to account for allowing fewer kids on each bus - or train more bus drivers before school begins, so the district has to find creative ways to get students back in school.

The three options that will be presented to parents at a Facebook Town Hall meeting Monday evening include:

  • All students attend their current school, but bus service would stop with 6th grades. The district would have staggered start times between 7:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.
  • Students in kindergarten through 5th grade would be required to attend a neighborhood school, while students in middle school would attend their current school. Morning bell times would range from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.
  • All elementary and middle school students would attend their neighborhood school, and start times would be 8 a.m. and 9 a.m.

The district is also considering scenarios where 12 to 15 students would stay together throughout much of the day, or students would attend classes in A/B shifts that could be every other day or every other week. Another option would be to have middle school students continue with distance learning, while elementary school students attend school in person.

“From our internal sense, these are the options that make the most sense,” Hart said. “If someone had a brilliant solution that we hadn’t thought of, we would be open to it.”

Providence’s existing school choice policy allows for 80 percent of seats at a school to be provided to students who live in the neighborhood and 20 percent of seats reserved for non-neighborhood families. Hart said the two traditional public schools typically have wait lists: Vartan Gregorian Elementary and Nathan Bishop Middle, both located on the East Side.

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If most elementary and middle school students are required to attend their neighborhood school, the district estimates that 3,221 students would move to a new school, according to the PowerPoint presentation that families will see Monday evening.

Students’ test scores at the city’s elementary and middle schools vary widely.

Proficiency rates in English language arts range from as low as 5 percent at Del Sesto Middle School to 47 percent at Gregorian Elementary, according to results on the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System exam.

In math, four schools – Del Sesto, Mary Fogarty Elementary, Gilbert Stuart Middle, and Roger Williams Middle – had proficiency rates of just 4 percent, while the Reservoir Avenue Elementary was at 35 percent.

Hart said students who are enrolled in special programs at specific schools would be allowed to remain in those schools, so some children would still take the bus to school.

Monday’s town hall meeting for Providence parents is scheduled for 7 p.m.


Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.