During Governor Gina Raimondo’s much-anticipated August 31 press conference, she announced that all Rhode Island school districts, with the exception of Providence and Central Falls, meet all five of her reopening metrics and are cleared to begin bringing students back to the classroom on September 14 for full in-person learning. “It is my expectation that that is exactly what you will do,” Governor Raimondo said. Providence and Central Falls, although they meet four of the governor’s five points for readiness, have COVID case counts too high to allow full in-person instruction.
The governor said that it’s up to the districts how they bring students back, and said that a staggered or phased return is acceptable, as long as all students are in the classroom by October 13. Education Commissioner Infante-Green said, “Staggering the return will allow students and teachers the opportunity to get used to new procedures.”
The governor said that Providence may offer students a partial reopening. This could mean that fewer students are in the classroom with a focus on getting younger students, 6th and 9th grade students in transitional years, and students with learning differences into the classroom. “There could be some in-person learning even with the older students,” Governor Raimondo said. The decision regarding Providence and Central Falls will be revisited in mid-October, based largely on the towns’ COVID percent positive rate.
Between now and September 14, a team put in place by the governor and her COVID response team will walk through every school building in every district to ensure that the schools are able to bring students back safely. Governor Raimondo says that if a school building has ventilation issues or is unable to properly socially distance teachers and students, the building will not open. Regular audits will take place throughout the year to ensure that safety protocols remain in place.
Over the last several weeks, three school committees voted to begin the school year with full distance learning. Those districts are Pawtucket, Warwick and Cumberland. Additionally, superintendents from eight districts sent a letter to the governor stating their concerns about distance learning and voicing their intention to begin the year with distance learning if their concerns are not addressed.
In response to these districts’ moves, the governor said she hopes the school committees will “do the right thing.” She said it isn’t clear that the state can legally override a district’s decision and force it to provide in-person education. Even if the governor was allowed the authority to overrule school districts, Raimondo expressed hesitation on using it. She did warn districts to prepare for the possibilities of federal funding going away and lawsuits from parents who feel their children aren’t receiving an adequate education through distance learning.
No restrictions are made on students who live in a COVID hot spot, but attend school in a district with a low positive rate. This policy feeds the fear of Nicole Casey of RI Parents/Educators for Safe Schools, who said in an earlier interview with Motif that this kind of mixing could lead to “small local outbreaks [becoming] a statewide outbreak.” Education Commissioner Infante-Green also said she is looking into the possibility of allowing students who live in a district that only offers distance learning to switch to a district that offers in-person learning.