Governor: 'Education Operations Center' to aid school reopening

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A multi-agency “Education Operations Center” has been established to support Rhode Island’s school districts as the Sept. 14 reopening date nears, Gov. Gina Raimondo announced Monday.

“We have an entire generation of young people who are counting on us to get this right … You’re not on your own in the school districts,” the governor said during her weekly COVID-19 briefing, which was moved up from its typical Wednesday timeslot.

Meanwhile, a final decision on whether – and how – schools will reopen is set to arrive Aug. 31. Asked if she has already effectively decided that students will return to classrooms, Raimondo on Monday acknowledged it is “highly unlikely” she will say no to reopening – although she cautioned that key metrics, such as testing capacity and the prevalence of the coronavirus, could still affect the final call.

Some educational leaders, however, are striking a very different tone. In a recent letter to Raimondo, superintendents and union leaders from several school districts – including Johnston” – advised that if local officials “do not feel that we can confidently and safely meet the metrics [the state will use in its reopening decision], then schools in our communities will open in a virtual/distance learning environment.”

“We miss our students and want a safe return to school for everyone. Our top priority is bringing back students and staff in an environment that is safe, inviting, and nurturing for all,” reads the letter, which is signed by Johnston Superintendent Dr. Bernard DiLullo and Johnston teachers union president Kathy Kandzerski. “However, it has become clear over the last number of weeks that we may not be able to open schools in a way that keeps all our students, families, staff, and community members safe.”

It continues: “We cannot continue to wait for directions that have a significant impact on our communities’ finances, on our ability to plan solid instruction that addresses academic and social-emotional needs, and on our ability to maintain the health and safety of our staff and students. We have been charged with representing and protecting the members of our school communities. We would do a disservice to our educational communities if we did not advocate for them by making safe and responsible decisions. When statistics become people and faces of students and staff, none of us are willing to have one person experience undue suffering or distress.”

The other signatories to the letter include superintendents and union chiefs from Cranston, Warwick, Coventry, Lincoln, Pawtucket, West Warwick and Woonsocket.

During her briefing Monday, Raimondo said the Education Operations Center – which she described a similar to the Emergency Operations Center that is activated during emergencies such as hurricanes or winter storms – will be staffed by the Rhode Island National Guard, Department of Education, Department of Health, Department of Transportation, RIPTA and the Emergency Management Agency. It will be “entirely focused on providing real-time support to our schools,” she said.

According to a chart shared during the briefing, school districts will ultimately be responsible for numerous facets of the reopening process – a from providing “high-quality learning experiences” to isolating those with COVID-19 symptoms, implementing health and cleaning protocols, maintaining PPE and cleaning supplies and ensuring transportation for students.

“It’s a heavy lift,” Raimondo acknowledged.

The role of the Education Operations Center and its member agencies, Raimondo said, will be to provide a wide range of logistical support.

A key piece of that, in the governor’s words: “We, the state, are going to undertake the responsibility of testing, contact tracing, case investigations for all the schools and all the school districts.” The center will also play a key role in responding to COVID-19 cases and outbreaks in school settings, she said.

“We’ve learned over the last six months how to do this,” she said, referencing the state’s role in responding to outbreaks at nursing homes and other locations.

The center will also provide instructional support and other “on the ground” assistance with area such as transportation and supplies, the governor said.

In a related note, Raimondo on Monday announced a “facilities readiness team” has been established to review all school buildings ahead of the scheduled reopening. She said all buildings and classrooms will require approval based on the team’s visits prior to any students or teachers returning. A “nationally recognized air quality expert” will participate in the walkthroughs to address ventilation concerns, she said.

“No one should have to go to school or go to work in a school and feel unsafe. So we’re doing everything we know how to do to make you safe and make you feel safe. That’s what you deserve,” she said.

She added: “There’s going to be bumps in the road. Kids are going to get sick. There are going to be outbreaks … But as I’ve surveyed what other cities and states are doing, I believe this to be if not the most comprehensive, among the most comprehensive [approaches].” Elsewhere during Monday’s briefing:

* Raimondo said 1,100 inspectors by Department of Business Regulation workers last week found mask-wearing compliance among both employees and customers at roughly 95 percent. Capacity limit compliance, she said, was at roughly 98 percent.

The governor also said compliance with rules at bars and restaurants has improved. Thirteen percent of restaurants and bars were found to have inadequate separation between customers and bartenders, while 6 percent were found to have crowding at bars. Both figures represent the “lowest noncompliance that we’ve had,” she said.

Raimondo also said 98 percent of bars and restaurants are complying with the 11 p.m. closing time for bar areas.

“It’s reflected in our numbers. These steps are working,” she said. * Raimondo announced that at the request of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, she is convening a Municipal Resilience Task Force.

The group will include four municipal leaders selected by the League, along with business leaders and state officials. The governor said the group will focus on possible cost-saving opportunities related to shared services, intergovernmental partnerships and new technology.

“My philosophy all along has been to use this crisis as an opportunity to innovate, to change the way we do business … and I’ve been having a great dialogue with a lot of town leaders around this,” she said. * Raimondo announced that Rhode Island has received approval through FEMA to provide a temporary boost to Rhode Islanders receiving unemployment insurance.

Rhode Islanders receiving a weekly unemployment benefit of at least $100 will be eligible to receive $300 in additional money for three weeks.

Raimondo said the money will come in the form of a $900 one-time payment. She also said the state will provide funding to ensure anyone receiving less than $100 in their regular weekly unemployment benefit will be eligible for the temporary boost. Money will be dispersed in two to three weeks, she said.

“I’m calling on the Trump administration to do the right thing and make it permanent, or do even more,” the governor said. * Raimondo will hold five briefings next week – the regular, full-length briefing on Aug. 31 with the expected schools announcement, followed by shorter, 15-minute events from Tuesday through Friday. She said the additional briefings will also be focused on the school reopening process.

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