District Leaders Express Concern about School Reopenings: Nine RI school districts address the governor

A letter from nine Rhode Island school districts to Governor Raimondo and Education Commissioner Infante-Green expressing their concerns about the reopening of schools in their districts was recently made public. Superintendents and leaders from Coventry, Cranston, Johnston, Lincoln, Pawtucket, West Warwick, Warwick, Woonsocket and North Providence expressed their intention to open their schools with distance learning if their concerns are not appropriately addressed.

Coventry superintendent Craig Levis made it clear that starting the school year with distance learning is not a foregone conclusion for his district. “We never said that we’re opting for distance learning. We evaluated the governor’s benchmarks, which she shared with everybody, and we’re going to make the decision based on safety. If we don’t feel safe, we’re not afraid to do distance learning or some portion of distance learning.”

Levis and the other superintendents who signed the letter to the governor are approaching the upcoming school year creatively. “The superintendents want to do what we can to bring back as many kids as possible and prioritize vulnerable populations, like pre-k, kindergarten and special ed, and students in career tech programs. We might hit the pause button and bring in small groups. I don’t consider that throwing in the towel or giving up. We have experts coming in next week to check out our buildings and tell us what we can do to make them safe. I think that’s not reacting, but being proactive.”

Levis recognizes that although educators are not babysitters, many parents and caregivers rely on local schools to provide a safe space for their kids while they are at work, and Levis is considering different options to help those families. “We’re still trying to find ways that even if we do distance learning for some populations, how can we create space where younger kids can be dropped off in school and we can monitor those kids?”

In their letter to the governor, the superintendents cite crumbling infrastructure discussed in the 2017 Jacobs Report as a major barrier to opening schools safely. “In mechanics alone, [the report says] schools need half a billion dollars of repairs. The governor knows well the problems in Rhode Island schools,” said Levis.

But where does that huge sum of money needed come from? In addition to money needed to repair aging ventilation systems in buildings, schools need more custodial support and nursing care. Money from the CARES act was earmarked for schools to use for COVID-related purchases, however, schools couldn’t access the funds. “We found out that money was used to fill a hole in the state budget,” said Levis. “When we needed the money the most, we didn’t have access to it. We’ve been told that more money is coming, but we don’t have access to that either.” He explained that state aid was cut in July and August, and will be cut again in September. Districts have been told they’ll be reimbursed for COVID-related expenses; however, “We don’t have the money to spend,” explained Levis.

At one of the governor’s weekly press conferences, Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green was asked whether students in a district that chose to begin the school year in distance learning could move to another district that offered in-person learning, and she answered affirmatively. “Isn’t that what [US Secretary of Education] Betsy DeVos proposed?” Levis asked. “Instead of investing in public education, they’re taking from schools that need resources and giving to schools that have the resources.”

Levis is committed to opening schools safely for the students and staff in his care. “The governor said kids and teachers will get sick. I’m not okay with that. There might be more we can do to mitigate risk. I think the governor is doing a great job, but when it comes to schools, we’re having one-way communication. I can’t walk in her shoes, and she hasn’t walked in mine.”

The full letter is below:

“We hope that you and your families are doing well during this incredibly stressful and challenging time. We also understand and appreciate how important and difficult it is to be a leader in our state during this time. As Superintendents, AFT Presidents, and school community leaders, we feel it is very important that students and staff return to schools with their peers and colleagues. 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.

“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. The five (5) metrics that were shared state-wide solidifies this apprehension, and we have identified the following concerns in alignment with the reopening metrics.

“Statewide Readiness: We are concerned about the recent increase in COVID-19 cases in RI. We have not seen a consistent decrease in many days/weeks.

“Municipal Readiness: Many of the leaders in our group lead large districts that continue to experience high rates of COVID-19 cases.

“Testing Readiness: The state initiative to expand testing is very important, and we are hoping for an increased availability of testing locally and a 48-hour turnaround on test results.

“Supply Readiness: Financially, we are struggling with purchasing sufficient cleaning supplies, antibacterial soap, hand sanitizer, face coverings, and PPE for our students and staff. In addition, the lack of availability of these supplies is impacted by the large number of communities both statewide and nationwide, all trying to secure these same products needed to open schools safely. A sufficient supply is needed to last an indefinite amount of time, given that we do not know when the COVID-19 pandemic will end.

“Operational Readiness: Although we all have scenario plans and are making revisions based on RIDE feedback, we have significant concerns about the ability to ensure safe air quality and environmental conditions within our schools, many of which cannot support the ventilation filtration standards. We also do not have the staffing to instruct students in both an in-school and distance learning model simultaneously. We need additional medical staff available to respond to COVID-19 related emergencies in the manner described in the RIDOH playbook. Additionally, we do not believe we can adequately staff the buildings to keep them clean and sanitized based on the required CDC standards.  Transportation readiness and availability continues to be a major concern for all of us.

“On Friday, August 7, 2020, the RIDE School Building Authority hosted a visit with Dr. Erin Bromage and more than 30 participants from schools and districts statewide. During this visit, Dr. Bromage, a highly qualified and respected scientist, shared an array of recommendations based on scientific evidence for safe classroom and school environments.  He emphasized four areas of concern when reopening schools: ventilation, filtration, social distancing, and cleaning. Based on Dr. Bromage’s four stated areas of concern, which are specific to the spread of COVID-19, we are unable to safely open our buildings. We are not confident a delay will ameliorate these concerns.

“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.

“Finally, we find it very difficult to plan for a scenario that will not be finalized until August 31, 2020. We understand that the RIDOH wants the most recent data available to make the decisions on school reopening, however, the reality of scheduling and planning for the return of thousands of students and staff to hundreds of schools requires more than 10 days’ notice. It is our responsibility to keep the members of our school communities safe, and we need more direction from the state level as to which scenario will be implemented. In the absence of firm guidance, we feel it is our responsibility to notify our state leaders that if we, as the district leaders, do not feel that we can confidently and safely meet the metrics above, then schools in our communities will open in a virtual/distance learning environment.

“Thank you for your consideration and attention to this matter.

Coventry Superintendent-Craig Levis                     

Coventry President-Kelly Erinakes 

Cranston Superintendent-Jeannine Nota-Masse       

Cranston President-Liz Larkin

Johnston Superintendent-Bernie Dilullo             

 Johnston President-Kathy Kandzerski

Lincoln  Superintendent-Lawrence Fillipelli               

 Lincoln President-Fred Hoppe   

Pawtucket Superintendent-Cheryl McWilliams           

Pawtucket President-Ron Beaupre

West Warwick Superintendent-Karen Tarasevich

West Warwick President-Sean Doyle

Warwick Superintendent-Phil Thornton               

Warwick President-Darlene Netcoh

Woonsocket Superintendent-Patrick McGee       

Woonsocket President-Robert Stewart 

North Providence President-Michael Cicerone”