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Rhode Island distances itself from virtual learning

This is an image of students in a classroom wearing masks. (WJAR)
This is an image of students in a classroom wearing masks. (WJAR)
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While aspects of the school day, like mask wearing, remain up in the air, Rhode Island students can expect one thing for certain: They will be learning in the classroom.

But for some parents, the return to the school building, even with part of the school community vaccinated, is premature.

"It's getting closer and making me more anxious to not have an answer to anything right now," Coventry parent Tiffany Golatta said. "I'm basically being told there's no distance learning and I can home school."

Golatta, whose children and husband are considered high-risk for COVID-19, is among the parents wishing districts were offering distance learning. Her children are ineligible to get the vaccine because they are younger than 12, she said.

As the NBC 10 I-Team reported, in one month, pediatric COVID-19 cases jumped from just over 27 per 100,000 to nearly 256. Despite the rise, there has not been a major increase in hospitalizations for kids under 18.

"I want them to go in school, but I want them to go in school when I feel it's safe," Golatta said.

Rhode Island back-to-school guidance, last updated June 29, pushes in-person learning.

"Our goal is to have all students back in-person, five days a week," the guidance reads. "Families of students who are at increased risk of severe illness (including those with special healthcare needs) or who live with people at high risk should meet with their district and review their Health Plan, 504 Plan, and/or IEP."

As families and school leaders weigh the best way to educate students amid a continuing pandemic, Chariho Middle School Principal Gregory Zenion is calling attention to teacher burnout that came with offering distance learning and in-person classes simultaneously.

"Teachers cannot do both. They cannot do in person and distance learning at the same time. They did it last year and it was an impossible task," Zenion told NBC 10 during a conference for secondary school principals. "They pulled it off. Chariho is going totally in person and I do have families demanding their kids cannot attend school. What do we do for them? That sounds like homeschooling for me. I don't know what we do in those situations. I know we can't do both."

NBC 10 I-Team Education Advocate Ashley Cullinane on Tuesday surveyed every public school superintendent in Rhode Island about to what extent their districts are offering distance learning. Here are the responses so far:

Barrington (Michael Messore): "We are back to full person instruction at all grade levels. Distance Learning opportunities may be offered on a very limited basis for extenuating circumstances only. The details are still undetermined as of now."

Burrillville (Michael Sollitto): "We are still working on it! Should have some answers next week."

Cumberland (Philip Thornton): "Cumberland is in person 5 days a week. Per RIDE, no distance learning is operating this year."

East Providence (Kathryn Crowley): "Undetermined as of now."

Exeter-West Greenwich (James Erinakes): "Our plan is for all students to be in school for in-person learning."

Johnston (Bernie DiLullo): "Johnston is not offering a distance learning option based in the district. We will work with families who may require a different mode of instruction based on individual needs."

Little Compton (Laurie Dias-Mitchell): "For the 2021/22 School Year, Wilbur McMahon School's instructional program is in-person for all students. Distance learning will be activated on Professional Development days and as a possible option during inclement weather."

New Shoreham (Michael Convery): "We are not planning on offering DL at this time."

North Kingstown (Phil Auger): "No DL offered at all in NK."

Pawtucket (Cheryl McWilliams): "Our back to school plan is a full in-person for our students. We do not have a distance learning program and are undetermined but will address special cases, particularly for the medically fragile."

Portsmouth (Thomas Kenworthy): "Special circumstances only in Portsmouth."

Providence (Spokesperson Audrey Lucas): "Providence Public Schools will not launch a stand-alone virtual learning program next year. Remote learning may be an option for families of children who are at increased risk of severe illness (including those with special healthcare needs or those who live with people at high risk), or of children who are experiencing “long COVID” or other conditions that have arisen as a result of COVID-19. Such children may be eligible for special education and related services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504), or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This virtual option will be approved on a case by case basis only."

Scituate (Laurie Andries): "Scituate is not offering distance learning but will be accommodating students with documented medical needs."

Smithfield (Judy Paolucci): "Per the commissioner, Smithfield is not offering a virtual option. Smithfield is offering full, in-person learning and we are excited to see our students back in school in September."

West Warwick (Karen Tarasevich): "We are not offering DL as a full model of instruction this year. It is undetermined at this point if there will be any use for special cases, etc."

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