PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Rachel Santos is clear about one thing: Distance learning did not work for her.
“There was always Zoom meetings, and I couldn’t really focus on that, because I get easily distracted and there’s a lot of stuff going around in my house,” she said. Without any in-person support, she added, she had what she described as “mental breakdowns.”
So when her district, Providence Public Schools, gave students a choice in September to come back into their classrooms, Rachel, 15, and her mother jumped at the option.
“My kid just regressed a lot” during many months of remote instruction, her mother, Ramona Santos Torres, said.
Students like Rachel have helped make Providence something of an outlier among American cities like New York and Chicago where, given the choice, Black and Latino families have by and large elected to keep their children learning from home.
In Providence, more than 70 percent of the district’s roughly 22,600 students have returned to their classrooms. The district is 68 percent Latino, 15 percent Black, 6.5 percent white and 4 percent Asian. Eighty-five percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
A key part of what has made Providence different has been Rhode Island’s governor, Gina Raimondo, who pushed strongly for schools to reopen for in-person instruction, saying that remote learning was leaving disadvantaged students behind.
Every district in the state but one has offered at least some in-person instruction since the fall, even as Rhode Island went from having very low case numbers during the summer to having one of the worst outbreaks in the country.
In Providence, the state’s largest district, elementary students can attend school five days a week, while most middle and high school students can attend every other day.
This is in stark contrast to other cities in the Northeast, where rates of infection were lower than in Providence in the final months of 2020.
In New York City, only elementary school students can currently attend school in person, and many of them go fewer than five days a week. In Boston, even fewer students are in classrooms — only 1,900 out of a total of roughly 52,000 — although the district has said it will bring back more students beginning next month.
Parents and experts cite several reasons that a majority of Providence parents might have sent their children back to classrooms. As in other districts, many parents work outside the home and are unable to supervise their children during the day; many are also immigrants who do not speak English and cannot help their children with online schoolwork.
But Ms. Raimondo, who has been nominated by President Biden to be the next commerce secretary, has provided an additional boost, not only in her advocacy for in-person school, but also by building trust with parents by not downplaying the dangers of the virus or rushing to reopen the economy. Rhode Island has had a mask mandate in place since May, for instance.
Despite the district’s efforts to keep students in classrooms, there is little doubt that the pandemic has exacted a toll on learning. Nearly half of current fifth graders who were deemed as meeting or exceeding expectations based on the state English language arts test in the spring of 2019 were rated as “at risk” or “emergency” on a literacy baseline test this past fall.
Teachers also say they struggle to engage students who are learning from home — both those taking classes remotely full time, and the in-person middle and high school students who are home every other day.
“The days they are in front of us, there is better engagement, and we have better control over providing them support with their learning,” Arzinia Gill, the principal of DelSesto Middle School, said of her in-person students. “And the days where they’re asynchronous — that means when they are not in front of us — it can be a challenge.”
The district, which has a history of high absenteeism, has seen attendance drop even further this year: The attendance rate was 81 percent in November, down from 91 percent in November 2019.
When Audra Cornell, 28, a math and English language development teacher at DelSesto, walked into a seventh-grade math class late one December morning, only two of the six students who were supposed to be there had shown up.
As Ms. Cornell led the students through a lesson on proportional relationships, one student’s mask kept slipping off his nose — when he hadn’t removed it to snack on crackers or chips. At one point, when Ms. Cornell went over to answer a question, she said calmly, “Can you cover your nose when I’m over here?” He complied.
In an interview, Ms. Cornell said that she felt like her students were benefiting from having some face-to-face instruction, but that their progress was slower because they weren’t in school every day.
“They don’t retain the same amount going back and forth from working in school to working at home,” she said.
The Providence Teachers Union opposed reopening, saying that the district’s buildings were unsanitary before the pandemic and now were unsafe. In November, the union sued the district, seeking to close a middle school that had experienced several cases; a judge rejected the request.
There have been hundreds of coronavirus cases among Providence students and school staff members this fall, but no instances of widespread transmission inside schools, district officials said. And in contrast to many districts elsewhere that have kept schools open even as cases have surged in the community, Providence has not had to shift entire schools to distance learning because of staff shortages — though delays in contact tracing have forced some classrooms to temporarily go remote.
The district mandates masks and requires students to have their temperatures taken, and to complete a symptom check, either before they get on the bus or when they arrive at school.
In late November, with the case rate in the community soaring, the district temporarily shifted 10th and 11th graders to distance learning for six weeks to reduce density in high schools. The district also shifted all students to distance learning for roughly a week before and a week after winter break, to allow families to quarantine before and after holiday gatherings.
Ms. Cornell, who has been quarantined twice for an in-school exposure, said in December that she felt safe coming to school. But in mid-January, as she was preparing to return, she was feeling less sure that in-person instruction was a good idea.
The district was starting to conduct twice-monthly surveillance testing of students and staff, which she said was a positive. But she said teachers were getting more anxious, as more people they knew got sick.
“It was nice to have a break from it,” she said of the vacation and the virtual learning days.
For Rachel Santos, who is in ninth grade, and her mother, the fall was challenging. Rachel’s 24-year-old sister, who lives with them, tested positive for the virus just after Thanksgiving, forcing Rachel and her mother into quarantine.
Combined with the winter break and the distance learning week that followed it, Rachel was away from school for more than a month.
“She had a bunch of missing assignments,” her mother said shortly after her daughter returned to school on Jan. 11.
“She was struggling a lot emotionally,” Ms. Santos Torres said. “I am grateful that she’s back in person.”
Maria Jiménez Moya assisted with interpreting in Providence.