Reopening of RI’s Public Schools Is Uneven Across Districts Raising Troubling Equity Issues

PROVIDENCE, RI – A new Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council report released today raises concerns about increased inequity across Rhode Island’s public elementary and secondary education system since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The report, entitled “Elementary and Secondary Education in the Pandemic: An Analysis of School Reopening and Distance Learning in Rhode Island,” analyzes key aspects of the educational experience in Rhode Island’s public schools during the pandemic and provides a full picture of the reopening status of each of the state’s 36 school districts. 

Despite calls from the governor to open all elementary and secondary schools by October 13, only nine districts were fully open by that date. Based on RIPEC’s analysis, about one-third of the students in Rhode Island’s 36 districts had access to full in-person learning as of October 13, while approximately half had partial access to in-person learning, and about one-eighth had no in-person learning access.

The school districts that have fully reopened are suburban and rural districts in higher-income areas of the state, whereas many urban districts in lower-income communities are relying more heavily on distance learning. Since there is clear consensus among academic researchers that, overall, the educational outcomes of students engaged in virtual learning are worse than those of students in traditional brick-and-mortar schools, the report finds it troubling that the least open districts in Rhode Island are also among the state’s lowest performing. 

“While there are major public health and operational challenges to reopening our public schools, it should not be acceptable to policymakers that the students most likely to be denied access to in-person instruction are already experiencing low proficiency rates,” said RIPEC President and CEO Michael DiBiase. “They can least afford to suffer the learning loss expected to result from distance learning,” he continued.

RIPEC’s analysis also found that there is a wide range of distance learning strategies employed across school districts, likely resulting in varying student outcomes. While academic studies and RIDE’s own guidance advise that instructors use a combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning, distance learning approaches range from almost fully asynchronous to live-streaming in-person instruction. Also, while many (and perhaps all) districts chose to offer professional development experiences that centered on distance learning, there is no mandate that teachers receive professional development on distance learning. 

With respect to students’ access to technology, RIPEC found that districts have improved access to technology as compared to the spring. However, internet access does not appear to have received the same attention from districts as has access to devices, and student access to both reliable devices and internet hotspots remain a concern in some districts. There also appears to be no statewide accounting to identify the full extent to which gaps in student access to technology remain.

RIPEC’s report also reviews fiscal year 2020 educational funding, where $50 million more in total was made available to public schools under the supplemental budget than was appropriated under the enacted budget, with lower-income districts receiving the larger portion of this additional aid. 

In its report, RIPEC makes several policy recommendations, including the need for a larger discussion as to whether the current decentralized model for public education in Rhode Island delivers the best outcomes for all students. “The decentralized structure of our current system essentially preordained that schools would struggle to respond to a major challenge of the kind presented by the pandemic,” said DiBiase. “While RIDE issued guidance and advice, and required reopening plans, the actual mechanics of reopening and distance learning were largely left to the educational leaders, school committees, and governing boards for 36 different school districts, 23 charter schools, and five state schools.”

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