PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — R.I. Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott told Rhode Island school leaders on Wednesday that all students and staff should be masked this fall, offering her most forceful comments yet on the issue.
“The public health guidance is clear: to prevent the widespread transmission of COVID-19, both vaccinated and unvaccinated people in schools must be wearing masks,” Alexander-Scott wrote in a letter distributed to school leaders that was obtained by 12 News.
“I am writing to you to strongly urge you to act on this imperative and to enforce an indoor mask requirement across the schools in your district,” she wrote. “I am asking you to do this to protect the health and safety of those in your community and all Rhode Islanders.”
The health director’s intervention comes as the debate over universal K-12 masking has reached a fever pitch in Rhode Island, amid heightened concern about the delta variant and the fast approach of the first day of school. COVID-19 hospitalizations are now above 100 in Rhode Island for the first time since May.
The FDA has not authorized any of the COVID-19 vaccines for use in children under the age of 12.
In her letter, Alexander-Scott wrote that while the test positivity rate for Rhode Islanders ages 30 and older has been 3.5% or less since the start of August, the positivity rate among children ages 5 to 18 has been above 5%, with the rate at 5.9% among children ages 10 to 14.
Gov. Dan McKee has resisted issuing an executive order mandating masks in schools, emphasizing that he supports the policy but arguing that the actual enforcement decisions should be made at the local level.
A growing number of fellow Democrats have criticized the governor for declining to take that step, but one of his chief allies and outside advisers — Johnston Mayor Joe Polisena — told 12 News on Wednesday that he thinks McKee is correct to leave decisions about masks at the local level.
However, the R.I. Council on Elementary and Secondary Education voted on its own Tuesday night to effectively require masks by moving to reject any back-to-school plans that don’t mandate them, putting federal funding for local districts at risk if they make masks optional. The council took the step despite a warning from its lawyer that a legal challenge was possible.
McKee is expected to address the issue again on Thursday when he holds a coronavirus briefing, where he is scheduled to be joined by Alexander-Scott. His office has not indicated whether he will issue a mask mandate at that time, though a spokesperson reiterated that all options are on the table.
“The administration continues to believe that the best way to get all districts to mask up and enforce those policies is to work directly with them to address concerns and support them in preparing the safest environment possible for our kids,” McKee spokesperson Matt Sheaff said Tuesday night.
Governors of neighboring states are taking divergent approaches to the issue.
In Massachusetts, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker reiterated Wednesday that he is satisfied with how local districts are handling mask policy and is not inclined to issue a mandate. But in Connecticut, Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont announced Tuesday that masks will be required in all schools at the start of the year.
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook
Kait Walsh contributed to this report.