Gov. Gina Raimondo defended her approach to the reopening of Rhode Island’s schools on Wednesday, saying it is too early to “throw in the towel” on a return to classrooms and rejecting what she described as “misinformation” and “fearmongering” in some quarters.
“Don’t let anybody scare you. We’re going to follow the science here in Rhode Island,” she said, noting that she was “disturbed” by recent comments from the White House about the role medical science will play in the school reopening process nationally.
She added: “As I stand here today, I do not have all the answers. And there are big challenges … We’re going to work every day between now and the end of August to figure out answers to these questions.”
The governor last month announced an Aug. 31 target date for the resumption of full, in-person learning across the state. School districts were subsequently asked to develop return plans for different scenarios – full distance learning, full in-person learning, and a mix of the two.
Those plans were due on July 17, and Raimondo said all of the state’s districts met that deadline. The plans, she said, were of “varying quality levels” and will now be reviewed by the Department of Education and Department of Health.
“Some of you really worked overtime, it’s clear … Others of you did a good job, and we’re going to help you get from where you are to a more complete plans,” the governor said.
As the target date for the start of school nears, anxiety has increased among a wide range of stakeholders – families, teachers and administrators – over whether Rhode Island is ready. A host of concerns and questions have been raised, from school athletics and transportation to whether families and teachers worried about their safety will have an opt-out option.
Several of the reopening plans prepared by districts are based on the idea that a full return to in-person classes is impossible under the social distancing and safety requirements provided by the state. Warwick, Cranston and Johnston are among the districts whose plans call for a hybrid model in which students split their time between school buildings and distance learning.
Raimondo and Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green on Wednesday pushed back when asked by reporters about criticism that they are moving too quickly or forcing an unsafe return to classrooms.
The process at this point, they said, is about planning for multiple scenarios given the uncertainty over the pandemic’s course in the weeks to come. Both also emphasized that no final determination has yet to be made – and reports have suggested one might not arrive until mid-August.
“This is probably the biggest decision we’ll make. Our children’s future depends on it … Yes, in-person learning is best for these kids. So we want to drive toward that,” Raimondo said, noting that issues of equity – particularly for students who struggled with distance learning over the final months of the past school year – is a key consideration.
She added: “We’re going to have to be flexible … As hard as it is, we can’t say today with certainty exactly what the plan is.”
The governor also appeared to question the conclusion multiple districts have reached regarding the feasibility of a full return to in-person classes, saying: “I don’t think the superintendents should say that so quickly. There’s a lot of work yet to be done … It’s not OK to say, in July, that can’t be done.”
Infante-Green said it would be “irresponsible” for the state not to plan for multiple outcomes, including a full return to classrooms. She said state officials are “not going to put anyone at risk” and are “going to do the right thing.”
“What we’re doing is going through the exercise of what we can have in place … And part of that process is listening to the community,” she said.
She added: “We are not ready to say, we are not going back in person, we’re doing this, we’re doing that. We’re planning.”
Infante-Green was at one point asked by a member of the media to address comments allegedly made by state leaders during a Tuesday Zoom call with educators. The comments, as related by the media member via two educators, suggested that officials had acknowledged the return to classrooms would result in additional COVID-19 deaths.
“That to me, I should actually look into suing them. I didn’t say that. I would never say that … That is very irresponsible and I’m sorry that teacher would do that,” she said, adding that the call was recorded and is available for viewing.
Raimondo said going forward, she will devote a portion of her weekly Wednesday briefing to the school reopening process. She also said on Thursdays at 3 p.m., she and Infante-Green will hold virtual forums via Facebook focused on school-related issues. The governor’s Friday COVID-19 email update, meanwhile, will be a “special edition” focused entirely on education.
“We want this to be transparent and fact-based for every student, parent, teacher out there,” she said, reprising a phrase she has used repeatedly throughout the crisis: “Facts, not frenzy.”
Elsewhere during Wednesday’s briefing:
* Wednesday’s COVID-19 data update from the Department of Health showed a continuation of what has been seen frequently of late – a number of new cases but a low positive-test rate, combined with a plateau in hospitalizations but a continued slow increase in Rhode Island’s death toll.
The 76 additional cases identified in Wednesday’s update represent a 2 percent positive-test rate based on the 3,782 new tests reported. Hospitalizations stood at 67, mirroring the three-day average for that key indicator. Five people were being treated in ICUs and three were breathing through ventilators.
One more COVID-related death has been identified, bringing Rhode Island’s toll to 997. Raimondo said when the state reaches the grim 1,000-fatality milestone, she will order flags flown at half-staff and the illumination of the State House in red, white and blue “as a tribute to the lives lost to this deadly virus.” * Raimondo said Rhode Island is doing “very well” in terms of mask-wearing compliance, with Department of Business Regulation inspectors having reported compliance rates of 95 and 90 percent, respectively, among workers and customers during weekend business inspections.
“We’re not doing as well with our social gatherings,” she said, pointing to continued instances of crowding in restaurants, bars and aboard boats. She also cited backyard gatherings as a significant driver of recent infections, a dynamic she said has been clearly identified through contact-tracing work.
“Our inspectors see it – crowding in restaurants, crowding in bars, crowding on boats … It’s crystal clear from the data, from the inspections and from the contact tracing,” she said.
Raimondo said she is exploring additional restrictions for bars – which are currently required to operate as restaurants – if compliance issues do not improve.
“If we don’t see better compliance, then I’ll be back next week with more stringent rules and a further shutdown of bars,” she said. * Raimondo and Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott both addressed the issue of COVID-19 testing. Wait times for results from some private labs have grown as the pandemic flares in other, more populous parts of the country, while the state last week was informed of roughly 100 false positive tests related to a New York-based lab.
Raimondo said Rhode Island’s average wait time for test results is “much less than a week” and that reported instances of people waiting more than a week to learn their status are “not the norm.” She said officials are working to bring all of the state’s testing under the “gold standard” of providing results within roughly 48 hours.
“Commercial labs all over the country are overwhelmed, and that’s causing a backlog … I understand it needs to get better. I’m committed on making it better,” she said.
The governor also issued a new call for Rhode Islanders to seek COVID-19 testing if they are symptomatic or work in a public-facing industry. She said the state has the capacity to test more than 5,000 people a day and is currently averaging just over 3,000 tests daily.
“The main message I’d like you to take around testing is that more people need to get tested,” she said, directing people to the web address portal.ri.gov to schedule a test.
Alexander-Scott noted that a new testing site has been opened in the parking garage of the Rhode Island Convention Center, replacing the site that had been in place at Rhode Island College in Providence. The site at CCRI in Warwick will also be phased out. The director said the Convention Center location will allow testing to run regardless of inclement weather.
Alexander-Scott also said Lifespan has partnered with the state to provide more rapid testing results for nursing home staff and residents. The state has been conducting cyclical, or repeat, testing at those facilities, which have been particularly hard-hit by the crisis.