PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — As a ninth-grade biology teacher in the Providence Public School District, Toni Cox begins each day by wiping down the tables in her classroom and turning on a HEPA filter. Then, she makes a mental note of in-person attendance: Between 40% and 50% of her 100 students are present most days, she said, and many arrive late.
Next, she assesses each student’s needs that day. If she has a quiz planned, she must decide whom to quiz and whom to offer an alternative knowledge assessment, such as a project or homework assignment, to help accommodate a recent absence or a challenge at home.
Finally, she takes note of the missing students. If any have been gone more than a few days and she’s unsure why, she’ll remember to speak to the guidance counselor at the end of the day.
“We don’t know why students are leaving and staying out for a while,” said Cox, a 2020 graduate of the Master of Arts in Teaching program at Brown University. “It’s difficult to make sure everybody is up to date. I can be there [for them], but… I don’t have all the tools and resources. Listening to students, adjusting our expectations and giving them the support they need is the best we can do.”
Cox’s experience offers a window into the enormous challenges that teachers in PPSD and Rhode Island as a whole continue to grapple with during the COVID-19 pandemic, and in particular the last few weeks. In early January, as schools reopened after the holiday break, Rhode Island saw an unprecedented surge in COVID-19 cases brought on by the spread of the highly infectious Omicron variant — leaving schools scrambling to cover teacher absences and leaving many teachers presiding over half-empty classrooms.
It was amid this backdrop that Brown’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform and School of Public Health convened a virtual discussion with health and education leaders to discuss how the city and state can build stronger, healthier schools for K-12 students. The Wednesday, Jan. 19, virtual event, “Returning to Our Schools: Prioritizing Health, Equity and Community,” offered an opportunity for students, teachers, administrators, parents and public health experts to outline the obstacles they face and to find mutually beneficial, long-term solutions.