Union holds ‘sweater-weather’ drive for students

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This fall has been unnerving for students, their families and school staff in Providence, R.I. But for students there, it’s mostly just cold.

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The average age of public school buildings in Rhode Island is 65 years old, explains Providence Teachers Union President Maribeth Calabro—and of these schools, Providence has the oldest. By October, the district still hadn’t done what was necessary for safe in-school learning, including the installation of new HEPA air filters, which didn’t start arriving until November, Calabro says.

“We were pushing back against the school district not to open schools until we had proper ventilation,” she says, adding that the district’s solution was to leave windows and doors open. Then the district obtained box fans and drilled them into window frames.

“You couldn’t close the window, even if you wanted to,” Calabro says, “so in October, when it snowed, it snowed right into the classroom. It wasn’t ‘Rhode Island cold’ here in October, but it was 50 and 60 degrees in the classrooms. The kids were sitting on their hands. Teachers were wearing their winter coats. It was just really uncomfortable.”

Needless to say, this icebox approach was distracting. Students couldn’t concentrate on their lessons, not to mention distancing and other precautions related to the coronavirus.

Looking for solutions, the PTU and AFT devised a way to help kids bundle up: a Sweater-Weather Drive for Providence Kids.

The drive’s broadcast partner was WLNE-ABC6, which promoted the drive during newscasts and online. The PTU and the Rhode Island Credit Union placed donation bins at their offices, and in just two weeks, the community donated 1,000 new sweatshirts, hoodies and sweaters in all sizes, from a child’s triple small for prekindergartners to adult triple large for teenagers. All the clothes had to be brand new because of the pandemic. The PTU also accepted cash contributions to buy clothing.

The clothing distribution was held Nov. 28 from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Union members and staff distributed the clothing outdoors in the union’s parking lot, with appropriate social distancing and masks.

More than 180 families came with their children—“it was great for our first go-round,” Calabro says—and the distribution succeeded so well that they decided to hold the event again next year.

One family walked up with their little boy of about 6. The day was chilly—about 45 to 50 degrees with the sun in and out—and the boy wore a sleeveless basketball jersey, Calabro says. “He was beaming, just beaming, to get a sweatshirt,” she recalls. “He was so excited to be able to pick out his own sweatshirt that we gave him several. The first sweatshirt he chose, he put on right away.”

Another family came with boys a little older, about 11 years old. They wore sweatshirts way too big for them, the sleeves hanging about 6 inches below their hands. They were pumped to receive New England Patriots sweatshirts.

“Champion brand sweatshirts were really, really popular—they were popular back in the ’80s, and they’re back in style now,” Calabro says. “It was incredible how appreciative the families were. It was a great feeling.”

After the event, the PTU reached out to schools to distribute the remaining sweatshirts and sweaters (the hoodies were all taken). Through their school, teachers can forward students’ names and sizes, and the union then packs a bag and sends it to the school. Any clothes not given away will be saved for the next distribution.

The union plans to time next year’s event the same way: “Not so cold that people won’t go out, and not so warm that people aren’t thinking about sweaters—before holiday time, and before we get super, super cold.” The PTU hopes to expand its outreach to parent organizations, churches and radio stations in both English and Spanish.

“When we do this next year, we’ll focus on sweatshirts and hoodies,” Calabro says. “Kids really love hoodies.”

[Annette Licitra/Providence Teachers Union photo]