CRANSTON – The National Education Association Rhode Island has urged districts to shift to distance learning for at least a week, but said it does not contemplate a work stoppage like the one that has shuttered Chicago’s schools.
“This is not Chicago,” said NEARI executive director Robert Walsh on Monday. “NEARI urges superintendents to consider distance learning for the remainder of the week if staffing and student attendance indicate that it’s the best decision.
“Any school that has the staffing, supplies and masks should remain open,” he said. “We haven’t found any district that meets all of these things.”
The NEA statement comes at a time when large school districts in Georgia, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio and Wisconsin have jumped back to distance learning because of dramatic spikes in COVID caused by the omicron variant.
Chicago, the third largest district in the country, canceled classes for a fourth day after the teachers union announced that their members would not return unless certain conditions were met.
But many national health experts have repeatedly stressed that children suffer emotionally and academically when they are forced to learn remotely.
Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, tweeted Monday that "Given the immense value of in person schooling for America's kids, let’s talk about how every school can be in person safely today. Not under ideal conditions but under real-world conditions.”
Given the immense value of in person schooling for America's kids,
Lets talk about how every school can be in person safely today
Not under ideal conditions
But under real-world conditions
First, let's start with "ideal", which LOTS of school districts have done
— Ashish K. Jha, MD, MPH (@ashishkjha) January 10, 2022
"At this point in pandemic," he tweeted, "even without systemic fixes, Individuals can protect themselves If you are vaccinated (kid) or boosted (adult) And wear good mask (widely available) No matter what others are doing You are very protected."
Brown University economist and author Emily Oster reported last month that learning loss was far worse in districts that kept classes fully remote, and that declines in reading scores were greater in districts serving predominantly poor and non-white students.
Locally, many school leaders are determined to keep schools in person, arguing that children and parents have suffered enough disruption from remote learning and the ping-ponging between in-class instruction, hybrid and remote learning.
“I’ll admit we have a staffing challenge,” said North Smithfield Supt. Michael St. Jean, “but closing schools is a last-ditch scenario. We have a lot of families who cannot provide childcare. Our schools are comparatively safe. We have protocols in place. It’s incredibly important that our schools remain open.”
“Look at this from the eyes of a child,” said Lincoln Supt. Larry Filippelli. “Our responsibility is to make schools the most normal experience as possible. That means keeping kids in school.”
Still, there was a domino effect of classes or schools shifting to remote learning last week as omicron swept through buildings, sickening students and staff alike.
In Providence, Hope High School was the latest school to announce it was going remote until Thursday. Barrington High School switched to distance learning late last week and hopes to return in person Tuesday.
At Blackstone Academy, a charter high school in Pawtucket, positive cases doubled over the weekend, with approximately 80 students testing positive out of 350. The school hopes to return in person Wednesday.
“We want them here,” said executive director Carolyn Sheehan. “Every educator wants them in school. But it’s going to be a rollercoaster for the next month. People are going to have to get comfortable with change.”
But NEARI President Larry Purtill said local union presidents are reporting that, in many cases, schools are not safe. He said any move to remote learning should be left up to individual school district.
State Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green thinks otherwise. She has asked for the authority to approve any plans for virtual school days, adding that this authority will remain in effect only while a Declaration of Disaster Emergency exists in Rhode Island.
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In addition to its call for remote learning this week, NEARI listed the following recommendations:
◘ Superintendents should be able to move to distance learning when staffing levels or levels of student absenteeism make in-person learning difficult.
◘ Districts should be able to move to distance learning if there are not KN95 masks available every day for all staff and students. The state's school mask mandate does not require KN95 masks.
◘ Tests should be available in every district.
◘ During distance learning, access to breakfast and lunch must still be available to all students.
◘ During remote learning, students must have access to school-based health services, including mental-health services.
The NEARI said it strongly recommends these guidelines be followed until the current surge slows.
Linda Borg covers education for The Journal.
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: COVID case surge makes RI teachers union call shift to remote learning