PROVIDENCE -- All across Rhode Island on Monday, the usual back-to-school excitement was overlaid with fears about whether there could be normalcy during an abnormal time.
In Providence, there were more bumps and glitches in remote learning than for students who attended school in person.
The first day of school never happened for some of the nearly 3,000 elementary school students enrolled in the district’s virtual learning academy.
Providence schools spokeswoman Laura Hart said that teachers were each given rosters of 52 elementary students on Friday and were expected to connect with families before school started on Monday – via call, text, or e-mail. However, by Sunday night, there were about 750 students who hadn’t been reached, she said.
Hart said she didn’t know how many students hadn’t been contacted by Monday, but the district was planning to send text messages to families before the second day of school.
“We were relying on a system that was flawed,” Hart said.
Maribeth K. Calabro, the president of the Providence Teachers Union, countered that some teachers didn’t have a roster until Monday morning. She called the virtual learning “a mess.”
At the middle school, teachers were trying to teach to students in their classrooms and those learning remotely at the same time, Calabro said.
And, at the high school level, there were no teachers for virtual learning; students used a computer program, she said.
However, those students who came to school were nervous but “happy to be back at the same time," she said.
The first day of school certainly looked different. Students getting on school buses, which were operating at half-capacity, had health checks as they boarded. Crossing guards wore masks as they paused traffic for students walking to school.
While it’s not unusual for some students to show up at school sick, in this school season, they are sent home. Hart said that two younger students with coughs and runny noses were isolated and sent home, and the state Health Department was notified.
Virgilia Perez dropped off her son outside Central High School and remained behind in her minivan, watching as he disappeared into the building.
“I’m nervous for him,” Perez said. “His dad and I say, ‘Nathan, don’t go,' but he says he wants to go to school.”
So did 14-year-old Idalia Chajchic, standing outside Central High with a friend with their new schedules. “I’m a little nervous just because of the pandemic,” said Idalia. “But I’ve been stuck at home for so long.”
Six months after schools were closed as the coronavirus began sweeping through the state, nearly all of Rhode Island schools were reopening with some version of in-person learning.
A new part of the curriculum: Lessons directly related to the pandemic that focus on social and emotional support.
In Providence, which is still not allowed full in-person learning until the city’s coronavirus case count drops, the school district is offering a hybrid version, with staggered in-person learning for elementary grades, 6th graders and 9th graders on an alternating schedule. Of the 24,000 students in Providence, 6,500 are enrolled in remote-only learning. About 7,000 others returned for in-person learning today; the rest will return on a staggered schedule.
Outside Central High School in the morning, Mayor Jorge O. Elorza mingled, welcoming the students. Rhode Island Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green held up a cardboard sign made by her children that read, “Welcome to High School.” As he addressed the media, Superintendent Harrison Peters sounded like a coach revving up his team for a big game: “We’re super excited. This is the moment we’ve been waiting for.”
Peters and Infante-Green said the schools were prepared, with classrooms stocked with personal protective equipment, students and staff screened before they entered, and improved air ventilation in the classrooms. The school district had hired an additional 60 custodians to keep the buildings clean.
The state had conducted walk-through inspections of all school buildings, but did not allow the media or teachers unions to accompany inspectors. On Sunday, the Providence School District released the results of the walk-throughs that it said shows that most buildings were ready. In the last two weeks since the inspections, the schools have made improvements to ventilation and spacing in classrooms, according to Hart, the district spokeswoman.
Infante-Green disputed an assertion from the Providence Teachers Union that there weren’t enough supplies, like soap. “We’re fighting a pandemic, not each other,” she said.
The Providence Teachers Union, however, wasn’t convinced. The union announced Monday that it was asking the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health to conduct a health-hazard evaluation on all Providence school buildings.
Calabro, the union president, said the walk-throughs were cursory at best. Her classroom has windows that don’t work, she said, and it didn’t appear that the inspectors checked them.
“There were no metrics to show whether school was ready or not ready,” she said at a news conference later Monday morning.
She urged the superintendent to use CARES Act funding to make long-overdue improvements to the school buildings. “We aren’t asking for the Taj Mahal, but we are asking for safe as possible,” she said.
Because when the cold weather comes, and they have to shut the windows -- at least, the ones that can open -- “I don’t know what we’ll do," she said.
Until then, Calabro said, the teachers are in the schools.
Kevin DiManni, with his tote bag carrying supplies including a map, paused outside Central High School. An English teacher for 9th and 10th graders, DiManni said he had “no worries whatsoever.”
He thought some of the measures for sanitation and safety being taken by the district were extreme, and said he was skeptical about the toll from the coronavirus.
The 14-year-old boy wearing a mask and a Thrasher sweatshirt had other worries beyond the pandemic.
As he stood alone outside Central High School, Kelvin Giron scanned for any familiar faces.
“I’m really nervous,” the new 9th grader said. “This is my first day here."
Staff Writer Dan McGowan contributed to this report.