Date January 20, 2022
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Rhode Island educators, students, parents gather to discuss pandemic’s impact on K-12 schools

A virtual event hosted by the Annenberg Institute convened experts to discuss how Providence and Rhode Island can build stronger, healthier K-12 schools, both amid and following the COVID-19 pandemic.

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.

Returning Safely to Schools


A virtual discussion convened health and education leaders to discuss how the city and state can build stronger, healthier schools for K-12 students.

The challenges schools are contending with are numerous and well-known, said event panelist Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency physician, professor and academic dean of the School of Public Health. Along with rising COVID-19 infections, schools are navigating significant absences, staff shortages and labor disputes. The American Psychological Association reports that 81% of teens ages 13 to 17 have experienced more intense stress during the pandemic. Teachers’ mental health has declined, with 27% reporting symptoms consistent with clinical depression, according to one survey. Learning loss has been particularly acute for students of color, English language learners, students who are homeless or have special education needs.

Deborah Obisanya, a student at Classical High School in Providence, saw firsthand how the pandemic widened existing gaps and worsened learning outcomes for everyone.

“Some of my friends, their mental health declined sharply, and that was reflected in their grades,” Obisanya said during the event. “So many did not do well that first semester of distance learning. And it was difficult to learn sometimes, because our teachers were [cutting] the coursework in half. Sometimes I feel like, in the past two years, I haven’t learned anything.”

Obisanya said that in lieu of a sophisticated air filtration system, her school kept classrooms ventilated by opening windows — a solution that worked fine in the warmer months but became unsustainable by the winter. Students had to bring coats and blankets to class to stay warm. Many simply stayed home.

“If you look into why kids aren’t coming to school, there’s a variety of reasons,” she said. “[Educators] need to work with students to understand what they need and how to help. Sometimes there just isn’t someone to talk to.”

A lack of resources for students in need isn’t a new problem for public schools, said Angelica Infante-Green, Rhode Island’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education. Most of the challenges schools have faced in the last two years are simply magnifications of problems that already existed.

“I think of COVID as… a tornado that came in,” Infante-Green said. “We were sweeping these little secrets underneath the rug… about who was mostly not being served well in our system. COVID ripped that rug out and exposed it to the public. Now… we have to deal with all the things we’ve been sweeping under the rug: The social-emotional [issues], the economic disparity, the racial disparity.”

“ Listening to students, adjusting our expectations and giving them the support they need is the best we can do. ”

Toni Cox MAT Class of 2020

Infante-Green said the state has been working to address those issues in individual schools and districts across the state, not only in response to the pandemic but also with the longer term in mind. They have offered financial incentives to bring more teachers to Rhode Island, offering student loan forgiveness and assistance with the cost of housing. They’ve offered a free 10-hour course on social-emotional development to all educators in the state — and they hope to share it with parents and families across the district as well.

City education leaders are also working with PPSD’s Parent Advisory Council to better understand parents’ and families’ needs. Melissa Hughes, a mother of two middle school students and a four-year veteran of the Parent Advisory Council, said that while parents’ perspectives are diverse, they tend to agree that there’s an urgent need to prioritize student mental health and support their social and emotional development.

“Issues that maybe already existed… have exploded into an even bigger problem,” Hughes said. “Even now that we’re in this new… ‘normal,’ students still don’t have the flexibility to have casual social interactions in safe spaces, especially for lots of our families in Providence who might not have… access to outdoor spaces or recreational opportunities.”

Cynthia Torres, the principal of Providence’s Reservoir Avenue Elementary School, said a recent grant from the Rhode Island Department of Education allowed her to hire a part-time guidance counselor to support students. But she’s also taking matters into her own hands, working with teachers to drill comforting daily routines into students’ lives.

“At the beginning of the year, we did a lot of work on establishing those routines, shifting ownership to the students,” Torres said. “Now, maybe we have a teacher who’s absent — the kids are the ones saying, ‘We don’t do it that way. This is how we do it in our classroom.’ They are empowered, they own some of those routines, they’re in charge. Routines give our students a sense of security.”

With all of these measures in place, Torres, Infante-Green and others expressed hope for the future of schooling in Rhode Island. Dr. Elizabeth Goldberg, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Brown, said she felt optimistic that in four to six weeks, Omicron infections would peak, students would begin returning to a more predictable schedule and education communities would begin to find a new, improved normal.

“When other states have struggled in certain areas, we have pulled together as a community,” Infante-Green said. “As Rhode Islanders, we forged ahead in the best interests of our students and families. Our state motto [“hope”] fits us well right now.”