The start of school in Rhode Island will be delayed two weeks, Gov. Gina Raimondo announced Wednesday, while a final decision on how classes will resume – fully in person, through virtual learning or using a mixed approach – has also been pushed back.
“We’re doing this because it gives schools a little bit more time to be ready … We’re going to keep working 24/7 to get these schools ready to receive our children safely,” the governor said during her weekly COVID-19 briefing.
The delay of the school start date from Aug. 31 to Sept. 14 had been expected based on Raimondo’s comments during an interview with WJAR on Tuesday and subsequent reports indicating superintendents across the state had been notified of the governor’s plan.
The statewide school calendar for the year remains in place with Raimondo’s announcement, and the final day of school will now be June 25, which she said provides “at least 177 days of school” for Rhode Island students.
Three additional professional development days have been added, from Sept. 9-11, which the governor said will allow teachers additional time to learn new protocols and otherwise adapt ahead of what will be a very different kind of school year.
Raimondo had been scheduled to make an announcement during the week of Aug. 17 regarding whether in-person learning will proceed, based on a set of five metrics she has previously presented. That decision will now come during the week of Aug. 31, she said Wednesday.
Raimondo acknowledged some will be frustrated by the delays, but she said educators have been asking for “just a little bit more time” to address a long list of issues ahead of the start of school. She also said a range of “operational readiness” issues remain – from classroom spacing to building ventilation and transportation – and that current data will be key in making a determination over whether in-person classes can safely resume.
“You know how we’re going to decide whether you’ll be fully in-person, fully virtual or somewhere in the middle … I can’t make a decision, we can’t make a decision, based upon the data of Aug. 16 for what we think the prevalence of the disease is going to be like on Sept. 14,” she said, adding: “This is something that changes every day, every week.”
Pressure has mounted, however, from elsewhere in the educational community – including from the state’s largest teachers unions – for Raimondo to go further and continue distance learning for the start of the new school year. Supporters of that approach point to a wide range of logistical and safety concerns, suggesting the safety of students and educators cannot at this point be guaranteed.
On Tuesday, the Warwick School Committee voted 4-1 in favor of starting the year with distance learning. That action drew a striking, blunt response from Raimondo, who called it “wrong-headed.”
“I could not be more disappointed in the vote that they took,” she said. “They just threw in the towel on those kids, and I think the children of Warwick deserve better.”
Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green added: “It’s not OK. We should be doing the work up until the day that we go back to school.”
Raimondo criticized Warwick’s schools for their approach to reopening plans – “They didn’t even do the hard work to give us a plan on in-person learning” – and later said the situation has led her to consider whether the use of legal action or funding leverage to force a change in the district’s course of action might be feasible and appropriate.
“In light of what happened, I am looking into the state’s options. Funding options, legal options … I’d rather take the approach of, how can we help you get there?” she said.
Raimondo also discussed the concerns of teachers unions and educators more broadly. While acknowledging fears over safety as “legitimate” and restating pledges that teachers will not be sent “into a work environment that’s not safe,” she said: “To just say ‘I’m afraid to go to work’ is not a reason to not go to work … A general fear of the virus is not a justifiable reason to not go to work.”
Infante-Green also sought to allay concerns of families, reiterating the previous statewide guidance that there will be an option for all students to take part in distance learning rather than in-person classes for at least the first part of the school year.
“We’ve already been really clear about parents having choice … We are not compromising safety as we move forward,” she said.
Raimondo addressed a handful of specific logistical issues facing the school reopening process, including testing.
One of the metrics to be used in the reopening determination, she said, is the available of testing for all students and staff with results available within 48 to 72 hours – and “we’re not there yet.” She did announce, however, that Rhode Island has acquired eight rapid testing machines and joined a 10-state collaborative to acquire testing kids for school settings.
In terms of transportation – which she called “one of the biggest operational challenges” – Raimondo said a team of experts, including Rhode Island National Guard and Department of Transportation personnel, has been assembled to focus on the issue.
“I’m going to push you to continue to be creative, and we’re going to help,” she said.
Asked whether using National Guard vehicles and drivers could be part of the solution, Raimondo said: “Maybe … We’re looking at everything. I don’t have an answer, but it’s on the table.”
Elsewhere during this week’s briefing:
* Wednesday’s COVID-19 data update from the Rhode Island Department of Health showed 74 new cases out of 3,684 tests, a 2 percent test-positive rate. Raimondo said the state is in “good shape” but has regressed from its previous progress in terms of containing the spread of the coronavirus.
“Seventy-four [cases] is feeling better, certainly, than the days we’ve had of over 100 … We’re not as good as we were and we’re not as good as we could be if everyone were following the rules,” she said.
Two more Rhode Islanders have died in connection with the virus, bringing the state’s overall toll to 1,018. As of Wednesday, 89 Rhode Islanders were hospitalized in connection with the virus, with nine being treated in ICUs. * Raimondo and Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott continued to plead for greater social distancing and mask-wearing compliance, although the governor had no new announcements or changes from the current phase three guidelines. The limit on social gatherings remains at 15.
“We have to get more serious … We’re at a real tipping point right now,” the governor said, reprising a phase she used frequently during last week’s briefing.
She later added: “We’re keeping everything in effect until we see our numbers going down.”
Raimondo said the new Rhode Island State Police “Crush COVID” unit received roughly 400 calls regarding violations of the social gathering rules in the five days after it was established last week. Fifty-six of those calls were investigated, she said, and four violations were found. All of those gatherings were “broken up immediately without incident.” Repeat offenders, she said, will face the prospect of $500 per person fines.
Raimondo also said compliance checks at retailers, gyms and others businesses last week found that mask-wearing among employees “wasn’t where we needed it to be,” although it was up among customers. * Raimondo and Alexander-Scott said health officials have seen a decline in the number of Rhode Islanders who are willing to cooperate when contacted as part of the contact tracing process for positive tests.
“We need to do a better job with contact tracing … I know some people are reluctant to provide the information. I want to assure you that all the information you provide is protected by the strictest privacy standards under HIPAA,” Raimondo said. * Officials made a new plea for workers to stay home if they are feeling sick or showing any symptoms of illness. Alexander-Scott said a review of positive cases among employees in several different sectors found that during one recent week, roughly half had gone to work while symptomatic. The week prior, she said, that rate was more than 60 percent.
Raimondo said: “I want to reminder everybody of the golden rule of this pandemic – don’t leave your house if you’re sick.” She reminder viewers that the law guarantees 10 paid sick days for workers and urged those who are experiencing difficulties with or pressure from their employer to contact her office or the Department of Labor and Training. * Raimondo said that at 3 p.m. on Aug. 13, she will be joined by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases, for a Facebook Live event.