Providence teachers protest Covid-unsafe schools and unsound home learning option

Let there be no mistake: These conditions in our schools are a direct result of racist and classist systems that replicate injustice. The negligence and the disregard by elected officials in our own district leadership of the conditions inside of our buildings is rooted in the deep seated belief that these conditions are good enough Providence children.

Nearly 300 members of the Providence Teachers Union (PTU) and supporters gathered outside the offices of the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) late Tuesday afternoon as part of a continuing series of protests against the conditions of the school during reopening and against the Virtual Learning Academy (VLA), a learn at home option for students which teachers say was hastily thrown together and pedagogically unsound.

Inside RIDE, there was a meeting of the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education that was accepting public comment via Zoom and was receiving an update on the reopening of schools in the state.

Below is the full video of all the speakers at the rally outside:

“We’re here today to bring attention to many concerns that families, that students, that teachers and quite frankly our community at large have about opening schools,” said Aarav Sundaresh, an art teacher at Classical High School. “For me, at least, my anger over the lack of clarity about how things were going to go shifted immediately to sadness and grief on the first day of school. I had a lump in my throat the whole day as I was navigating my students at home, my students at school, and wondering how my students were going to work it all out. But we started school as professionals – the professionals that we are – knowing, sadly, that things just aren’t quite right.”

“Families did not feel safe sending their children to school because they know the checklist is a sham. Parents chose VLA (Virtual Learning Learning Academy) because the had to. because they live in multi-generational households, because they have children who have chronic asthma, and because they know that the city that neglects their school buildings isn’t safe for their family or community,” said Antonia Lara Sanchez, a teacher at Roger Williams Middle School.

Lara Sanchez then took the crowd through the checklist, enlarged for easy viewing.

Lindsay Paiva teaches 3rd grade ESL at Webster Avenue Elementary School, a building that is 115 years old.

“Our schools were not safe before Covid,” said Paiva. “The virus has illuminated so many of the glaringly obvious inequalities that were created and maintained by systems inequality, white supremacy and racist capitalism. Let there be no mistake: These conditions in our schools are a direct result of racist and classist systems that replicate injustice. The negligence and the disregard by elected officials in our own district leadership of the conditions inside of our buildings is rooted in the deep seated belief that these conditions are good enough Providence children.

Paiva provided examples:

  • Exhaust fans blocking the emergency exits. The kindergarten classes do not have a fire exit as of today.
  • Not one classroom has a soap dispenser that functions
  • There are no sinks in the kindergarten rooms
  • There are bats and mice in the building

Paiva called for a new normal, where, “students have access to learning environments devoid of mold, rodents, leaky ceilings and disrepair… students have safe clean drinking water… [and] students will walk into a building that is cared for and shows them that they are loved and they are valued. “

“Our students have this checklist, and the answers are mostly ‘no’ or ‘in progress.,'” said Michelle Manning, a teacher at Times² STEM Academy. “Does each room have sufficient ventilation and accommodate 4-6 air changes per hour? ‘No’ or ‘in progress.’ Does each room have enough clean air from a central HVAC system? ‘No’ or ‘in progress.’ Does each room have its windows open if feasible? What a question! If feasible? The windows from the last school I came from only opened four inches. ‘No’ or ‘in progress.’ Does each room have fans to improve air flow? That’s our HVAC system? ‘No’ or ‘in progress.’

“This keeps me up. It makes me really worried, because, as we know, that Providence families are the ones that are the most impacted by this pandemic,” continued Manning. “Is it right for some students in Providence to have a state of the art [HVAC] system, and for some of us to have a fan in one window that’s blowing in soot and dirt from the streets?

“Buildings that are managed poorly can be quite effective at being vectors for disease by concentrating indoor pollutants, but they can also help, if managed properly. All we’re asking for, as teachers, as parents, is for schools to be managed properly and for the HVAC systems to be updated so that we can be safe.”

“Equity is about fairness and justice. It is about giving people the resources they need to fully access their opportunities. It is one of the main reasons I wanted to become a teacher,” said Gwendolyn Rogers, who teaches English at 360 High School. “It is also a word that is being thrown around by decision makers at the state and district level, that has started to feel that it has lost its meaning.

“Commissioner [Angélica] Infante-Green released an oped yesterday in the Providence Journal which said that during the pandemic RIDE has been ‘supporting differently abled students and multilingual learners to ensure equity and continuous improvement.’

“This could not feel further from the truth,” continued Rogers. “Reading the word ‘equity’ in that context made me realize that it has become little more than a hollow buzzword.”

The Virtual Learning Academy (VLA), maintains Rogers, fails the equity test.

  • VLA does not provide a supportive learning community
  • VLA has been thrown together haphazardly, leaving teachers unable to instruct appropriately or students to learn deeply.

“We are living in a time when people are talking more about racial justice. I want everyone here to know that racial justice is not just about the police,” continued Rogers. “It is about school. It is about us. It is about disrupting a system that is far too comfortable providing communities of color with less than what white communities get.

“In a district with 90% students of color and 30% multilingual learners, any issue becomes an issue of racial justice… We understand that we need to be patient with bumps in the road and Covid flexibility for this uncharted territory, without community or teacher input, is a definite injustice. “

“‘I feel like I’m risking my life to get an education.’ These are the words a student said to me today in class,” said said Maya Chavez, who teaches at Dr Jorge Alvarez High School. “How dare we not stand in radical solidarity with students who are willing to put their lives on the line to pursue and education?

“The walkthroughs are a joke, but more than that, there are outright lies being told in these documents,” continued Chavez. “We have walkthroughs that not only are incomplete, have not only been marked ‘no’ in many columns, they are blatantly false. How is it that we have met Gina Raimondo’s reopening criteria, if there are outright lies in this documentation?”

Temperature checks, added at the “eleventh hour” are not effective at detecting Covid, said Chavez. “What is it? Toxic positivity. What is it? It’s PR. It’s an effort by the district to lie their way through a pandemic and I’m not here for it… If my student is willing to come to my building, not knowing one adult in the building and placing trust in all of us, to risk her life for that education, then we need to be there with her.

“And while I have tremendous confidence in my students, tremendous confidence in the teachers, tremendous confidence in all the advocates and people who have made their voices heard, I have 100% no confidence in Superintendent [Harrison] Peters! I am done!

“While we’ve been fighting, our superintendent has been running a very poor PR campaign,” concluded Chavez. “We need strong leadership. We need leadership that stands alongside our students, that listens to teachers. We need better leadership. I’m demanding better leadership. Let’s get this done.”

The last person to speak was Maribeth Calabro, the President of the Providence Teachers Union.

“We asked to be part of the solution,” said Calabro. “We asked to be on the walkthroughs… because we know our schools. We can point out the fact that Aramark [the contractor employed by the district to clean the schools] waxed over rat feces that was on the floor before they waxed it…

“Don’t call me family, don’t tell me you care, don’t talk about equity, when we don’t have books,” said Calabro. “The last times I checked, when we do walkthroughs, there’s a rubric – How many things do you need to do to get this score, and what does it mean? So, how many ‘no’s’ do you need before you close down a school?”

The promise at first was for inspections said Calabro, which became walkthroughs. Teachers were not allowed to be involved with the walkthrough process, and initially the teachers and the public were not allowed to see the results of the walkthroughs. “Okay Gina, I don’t trust you,” said Calabro. “You want to know why? You lie.”

The protest ended as Maribeth Calabro left, to testify at the meeting.

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