On Monday, Rhode Island embarks on an unprecedented experiment for public school students from kindergarten through high school. With schools closed to stem the spread of the coronavirus for at least two weeks, students are beginning what the state calls “distance learning.”

For some students, that means online classes. But for many, it doesn’t. One of the biggest immediate issues for the state is that lots of students don’t have computers, tablets or even access to the internet. 

Rhode Island schools had about a week to come up with plans to teach students outside of school. And a lot of districts are relying on technology to make that happen.  

At Western Coventry Elementary School on Thursday, teachers and staff were busy getting ready to teach remotely. But about 40 percent of the families at that school aren’t planning to use online tools. They either don’t have computers, don't have internet access, or just don’t want to use online classes for their children. 

And the solution for those students is surprisingly low-tech. 

“So right now we have set up 59 of these little packages, and that we plan for two weeks, but we definitely put in extra work that could go prolonged if we needed to,” said Kristin Deschene, a first grade teacher at the school.

All around her, on little tables sized for first graders, Deschene was surrounded by stacks and stacks of worksheets and booklets -- each little pile is for one of the 60 first graders here.

“We have lessons for ELA for writing, grammar, phonics, science. We put in their science book,” Deschene said. 

Dechense’s students will have packets of take-home work in every subject -- enough to cover at least two weeks. She’ll be checking in on her students and parents daily, via phone, email, or video. The days will be split up into more focused work, and more creative play.

She wants the class day to feel as normal as possible. She says this is the biggest change she’s ever had to deal with. And despite all this preparation, no one is entirely sure how this is all going to work out. 

“I'm going to tell you, and I think everybody has to really think about this. I don't know,” Deschene said. “And you have to take day one as day one. And then if day one doesn't look great, I'm going to readjust for day two.”

Rhode Island received plans like Deschene’s for every single school, in every single district in the state over the last week. The plans were not required to include a technology component, though many have portions that involve online classes. A lot of these programs look sort of like a cross between power-point, video-chats, and online standardized test prep.  

It’s a massive, district by district transition to a completely different kind of school. And state Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green warns that it comes with a lot of unknowns.

“We’re going to have to be very creative. We’ve never done this before,” Infante-Green said last week. 

Like every other public school student in Rhode Island, Milly Asherov has been off for the last week -- basically self-isolating. She’s a sophomore at Classical High School in Providence. She’s less worried about the use of technology once school gets started. She says most of her teachers already use computers for part of their classes. 

But she’s not convinced all her classes will translate once they're taught entirely through the laptop.

“The long lectures and sitting and doing work by yourself,” Asherov said. “Not all of us are learners that can sit there for five hours -- especially in a different environment that isn’t so education driven.” 

“In school you’re at school to learn. At my house there are other distractions that are going to get in my way.”

In some ways, Asherov represents a best case scenario for remote learning: she’s got a school-issued laptop, she has internet and she’s already used to using online resources as part of her classes. 

That’s not the case for many other students in Providence and across Rhode Island.

Teachers across the state last week handed out thousands of laptops to students -- and private philanthropy groups and wifi companies have stepped in to provide internet to those who need it. 

But Rhode Island doesn’t have numbers yet on just how many students fit into that category.

“We do know that there are barriers. There’s an equity issue. That’s why this week is really important, for us to kind of figure out how we can have an equitable system for most of our kids, if not all,” said Infante-Green.

“I actually think that the connectivity challenge is a red herring,” said Shawn Rubin, who works at the Highlander Institute in Rhode Island.

Highlander is an education think-tank that helps districts incorporate online classwork into their schools. And his point is this: if a student cannot access the internet, it’s likely there are a lot of other factors that will make distance learning especially difficult -- including poverty or even homelessless. Those are the things that can make school both a refuge and a challenge.

“And so now all the other things -- like you don't have access to a school nurse anymore. So now we got to think about what your actual health care is. You don't have access to school lunch anymore. So now we actually have to deal with the fact that you are living in poverty and you don't have food -- like this is something that is going to affect your learning,” Rubin said.

For those most vulnerable students--many of whom may already struggle with keeping up and attending class--Rubin worries distance learning might mean losing the last thing tethering them to school at all.

Editor's note: a previous version of this article referred to Shawn Rubin as the head of the Highlander Institute. He is in fact the head of education for the organization.

We want to hear your stories. How is this closure working for you? Are you a parent, teacher or student? Will online classes work for you? Tell us your story here.

Or email me directly at jbender@thepublicsradio.org