Baxter: Pawtucket School Committee ignores the experts and the people

Baxter: Pawtucket School Committee ignores the experts and the people

In what could kindly be described as a regrettable decision, the Pawtucket School Committee voted unanimously to keep all grade 1-12 students learning virtually for the remainder of the 2020/2021 academic year. In doing so, this committee subjugated the recommendations of its own superintendent, the commissioner of education, and most regrettably, the overwhelming will of the people whom they were elected to serve and the students whose educational welfare they swore an oath to protect.

As remarkable as this decision appears, considering that Pawtucket remains the only school district in Rhode Island not to return their students to some form of in-person instruction, it is the level of ignorance and irresponsibility that is painful for students and their parents to accept. As a former School Committee member and its chairman, I can attest first-hand that school committees, by their very nature, are legislative bodies elected by the people to ensure that educational laws and policies are being followed. The members themselves come from different walks of life with different attributes, but don’t necessarily possess the skills and expertise required to determine the best educational outcome for a child. Which, thereby calls into question how this body consciously ignored the recommendations of the superintendent, who possesses such expertise. Even more dubious is the fact that the School Committee’s decision was one endorsed and supported by the leadership of the Pawtucket Teachers Alliance, despite it being revealed in the 1/11 meeting that 70 percent of that union’s membership were willing to return to live instruction. Drawing from my School Committee experience, I can say that the relationship between committee and union was always restrained. Respectful for sure, but restrained. As it should be.

This vote was the culmination of a chain of misguided decisions that began shortly before the start of the school year and continued through to today. Unlike the state’s other school districts, Pawtucket allowed months to pass without preparing its school buildings for the safe return of students. A virtual academy that could have served to educate students whose parents had concerns about their returning to live instruction was subsequently scrapped. Had the schools been made ready for safe in-person learning and the virtual academy established, I likely would not be penning this letter. Rather than acknowledging the missteps, accepting the considerable public criticism and working toward a solution to return the children to live instruction, this School Committee has consistently and irresponsibly defended each bad decision. When you stand alone as the one school district who failed to return your students to live instruction, you’re not right and everyone else is wrong. That is not a reality.

Lastly, I would like to share an excerpt from a recent RIPEC report titled, “Elementary and secondary education in the pandemic:”

“Despite growing interest in virtual learning over the last decade, there is clear consensus that the educational outcomes of elementary and secondary education students engaged in virtual learning are worse overall than those for students in traditional brick-and-mortar schools. 23 researchers have found that the standardized test scores of virtual learning students are lower than that of their peers receiving in-person instruction across subject disciplines, including English, math, science, and social studies. One recent study from Brown University’s Annenberg Institute found that students who returned to brick-and-mortar schools were typically able to “almost fully recover” the losses reflected in lower test scores, but the same study found a staggering 10 percentage point drop in graduation rates among students who had ever attended a full-time virtual school.”

While this study certainly speaks to the challenges facing our at-risk populations, at the end of the day, all of Pawtucket’s diverse populations will suffer, including students, families and property owners. When a representative body fails to exercise its duty, even in a pandemic, no-one is immune from the outcome.

John S. Baxter Jr.

Past chairman/member

Pawtucket School Committee (2005-2008)