Back to School: What health experts, school officials say to expect this fall

Back to School

COVENTRY, R.I. (WPRI) — Parents across Southern New England are sending their kids back to school this week, and they’ll once again have to remember to pack a face covering.

Masks are required for K-12 students and staff in both Rhode Island and Massachusetts as the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus continues to spread.

12 News asked R.I. Department of Health Medical Director Dr. James McDonald if it was safe to send kids back to school this fall due to the variant and other issues.

“Yes. It’s going to be safe to send kids back to school this fall,” he said. “I think the universal mask mandate makes it safe. Other states haven’t done that, and it’s not going as well for them.”

Monday is the first day of school for most students in Coventry, where Superintendent Craig Levis says they’ll be following the state’s mask mandate. Gov. Dan McKee’s executive order is in place through at least Sept. 18.

“We’ve been through this before, people don’t like it. I don’t like masks. But it isn’t going to be forever,” Levis said.

Both Levis and New Bedford Superintendent Thomas Anderson said they’re prepared to reevaluate as new health data is released.

Anderson said New Bedford never ended its original mask mandate, but school leaders had been in talks to change it.

“Things were much different, and we had expected to be a lot different going into the fall,” Anderson added.

In Massachusetts, the mask mandate could be lifted by October, but only for fully vaccinated middle and high school students, and only if individual schools reach an 80% vaccination rate.

“We’ll be discussing what that looks like for New Bedford,” Anderson said.

Web Extra: Full interview with Levis, Anderson (story continues below)

Both superintendents told 12 News they did not have hard and fast numbers on how much of their eligible student population and staff is vaccinated.

Levis believes the percentage for staff in Coventry is high.

“We want to continue we’re going to continue to provide those opportunities for vaccination,” he said.

Vaccination rates vary by school district, according to McDonald.

“Some school districts have 90% of kids vaccinated, which is great. But some of our higher density communities like Providence and Pawtucket have much lower vaccination rates,” he explained.

Web Extra: Full interview with Dr. McDonald (story continues below)

McDonald said about 61% of Rhode Island students ages 15 to 18 are at least partially vaccinated, adding the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s full approval of Pfizer’s vaccine should encourage those who aren’t yet immunized to get the shot.

“Keep in mind, all the other vaccines we give our kids are FDA-approved,” McDonald noted.

“We’ve all been doing this, and the vaccines we give in COVID are some of the most well-researched vaccines in the world, some of the most well-monitored vaccines in the world, and really during a time when it matters the most,” he added.

Both Anderson and Levis said they are also prepared for deep cleaning, social distancing, and COVID testing.

Coventry has submitted a plan to the state that would be based on tests per pupil, while New Bedford is trying to decide which method of testing works best for their students.

BACK TO SCHOOL: All this week and next, 12 News This Morning is helping you get back to routine with new reports every morning at 6 a.m., along with the latest headlines and weather forecast on WPRI 12 and WPRI.com.

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