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PVD Teachers Union sets up outdoor classroom to demonstrate crowding in classrooms



When we look at who this pandemic has most affected, it’s the Black, Indigenous and People of Color in the Providence community, the same community that’s also most affected by systems of oppression that keep our schools underfunded and under resourced.

“We created a classroom view, and this is what a classroom will look like in Providence when schools open in just under one week,” said Aarav Sundaresh, an art teacher at Classical High School, who emceed the Providence Teachers Union (PTU) press conference on the south lawn of the Rhode Island State House on Tuesday. Some of the “students” were PTU teachers, others were actual Providence students. They held signs that spoke to the “diverse realities” of student concerns.

Crammed into a 22 x 19.5 foot rectangle were 26 students, plus a teacher. Some of the actors portraying students declined to sit with other actors being so close, even outside and masked, for fear of COVID. “They didn’t feel comfortable,” said Sundaresh. “They came and saw how close the desks were and they asked, can I just stand on the side?”

“Since March we have been listening to the Governor, and her press conferences have historically felt informative and helpful. Many would say she’s done a phenomenal job mitigating the crisis,” said Sundaresh, emceeing the press conference. “However, we know that at recent [press] conferences Providence teachers have been disappointed in the ways in which students and teachers expertise and experiences have been absent from the decision making process…

“We are the experts on certain aspects of reopening the schools,” continued Sundaresh. “This pandemic has clearly shown us that our issues and concerns overlap with students. They are not separate, which is what the dominant narrative about teachers and education have been.

PTU has centered their reopening goals around five major themes.


  • Maintaining safe distance is impossible in our classrooms.
  • Many of our buildings were decrepit under pre-pandemic standards and need to be fixed.


  • Tye virtual option the district provided won’t allow students to see their own teachers or classmates.
  • Current safety needs inherently detract from collaborative work and community-building with the proper space to allow for it.


  • Teachers, students and families have not been meaningfully included in the conversation about how to reopen safely.
  • Teachers, students and families still don’t have clear guidance about what to expect for the first day of school, less than a week away.


  • The “virtual Learning Academy” offered and online option by cutting corners with prepackaged online curriculum that is disconnected from the full range of district course offerings.
  • Quarantines and isolation will be necessary and disrupt routine, which is necessary for teaching and learning.


  • In a district that has over 90% students of color, health and educational equity intersect with racial justice.
  • Premature opening will hurt students most impacted by COVID, those who live in the city that has consistently been our state’s epicenter.

“This is very scary to me,” said Maribeth Calabro, President of the PTU, about the classroom. “I’m a also a resource specialist. So that means that I am going to walk into this room, with this educator and these students. And then, at some other point during the day, an art specialist is going to come in, and at another point during the day, a music specialist is going to come in, and a library media specialist is going to come in, and a music specialist is going to come in.

“And [these specialists] are going to go into other classrooms that look like that. Does that sound like a stable group to anyone?” asked Calabro to a chorus of ‘No!’

“These children are also going to leave this classroom and go onto different buses. And each one of those buses is going to have 15 other students on it. And those 15 other students are going to go home, to 15 different homes, with a various number of people in them. Does that sound like a stable group to you?

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“We’re talking about 26,000 families. 2000 teachers and their families, who will be impacted by these decisions,” continued Calabro. “All because [the Governor] said we’re fully reopening schools, and you don’t want to take it back.”

“When we look at who this pandemic has most affected, it’s the Black, Indigenous and People of Color in the Providence community, the same community that’s also most affected by systems of oppression that keep our schools underfunded and under resourced,” said Michelle Manning, a teacher at Times 2 and a member of the racial justice committee.

“I believe that in order for my children, my students to feel safe in my building, they need to be valued. They need to walk into a building that screams to them that I have high expectations for you,” said Katherine Anderson, a teacher and parent at Hope High School, who began her talk by pretending to try to open the windows in her classroom that do not open. Anderson had come from painting her classroom. “Our buildings were not safe before Covid, because I walk into a building and the windows won’t open and the bubbler doesn’t bubble water that you would give your pet rat.”

“Equity. That’s what we’re looking for, so that when you look at a Black or a Brown child, you see your child, no matter what race, and you recognize that that child needs a high quality, good education,” said Crystal Swepson, a teacher in the Virtual Learning Academy, the online option being presented to Providence students.

The class dismissed, the “students” attempted to follow their teacher out of the room, while maintaining proper social distancing.

About the Author

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.