PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — As Rhode Island school districts continue to prepare for the upcoming school year, Gov. Gina Raimondo offered new information Wednesday on what they should do if a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19.
During her weekly coronavirus briefing, Raimondo unveiled the state’s three-tiered approach to responding to cases or outbreaks, where schools could continue as normal, move to a hybrid model, or revert to full distance learning.
School districts submitted plans to the state for all three scenarios. The initial goal was to have all public school buildings reopen on Monday, Aug. 31, but that’s since been pushed back to Monday, Sept. 14, to give districts more time to prepare. (Teachers are asked to report on Wednesday, Sept. 9.)
Raimondo didn’t sugarcoat it, saying, “there are going to be children that get the COVID virus” and “there are going to be professionals that work in the building that test positive,” but she assured her administration and school leaders will do everything in their power to make sure the learning conditions are as safe as possible.
The governor said she believes that’s the right approach, echoing the sentiment from Dr. Anthony Fauci during her weekly online forum last Thursday. The infectious disease expert said when it comes to reopening schools, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.
The state has gotten emails from numerous parents and teachers who are nervous about resuming in-person schooling, according to Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, but she also said they’ve been hearing from many parents and teachers who want students back in the classroom.
School leaders, she said, have to think about everyone, including multi-lingual learners, children who are differently abled, and students for whom distance learning simply didn’t work.
“School’s not just about instruction,” she said. “We have to make this work for everyone. We hear everyone.”
Many families, Infante-Green said, will be faced with tough decisions if schools don’t reopen, such as choosing between staying home from work and jeopardizing putting food on the table and leaving kids unsupervised at home.
“We’re all in different places. That’s why choice matters,” she added. “That’s why it’s our responsibility as an education system to provide the choice and meet everybody where they are.”
Raimondo said while districts are taking the lead in terms of procuring personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning supplies, the state is helping those that are having trouble. In the past week alone, she said the state has distributed 3,000 thermometers, 600,000 masks and 10,000 gowns to districts.
Raimondo also encouraged Rhode Islanders to join her next Facebook live discussion on schools at 3 p.m. Thursday, when she’ll be joined by licensed social workers and mental health experts from Bradley Hospital.
Earlier on Wednesday, the R.I. Department of Health reported three additional COVID-19-related deaths and 79 new positive cases.
One of the people who died was in their 60s, according to Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, while another was in their 80s and the third was in their 90s.
Currently, 82 COVID-19 patients are in the hospital, with eight in the intensive care unit and five on ventilators.
“Our compliance has increased a bit and you see it in the numbers,” Raimondo said, noting that inspectors visited more than 1,000 businesses in the past week and found 96% of customers and staff were wearing masks, and 98% of businesses complied with capacity restrictions.
She did, however, say the state still needs to do better in terms of bars, with 15% not having adequate social distancing and 17% having patrons too close to bartenders.
Raimondo also issued a reminder that the limit on social gatherings is 15 people, saying she’s being asked regularly if that limit can be exceeded if only family members attend.
“Please, follow the law, there are penalties in place. It’s a $500 fine per person if you’re above 15, even if it’s on your back porch,” she said. “15 means 15. Not 20, 22, 25 … we just have to stay strict around that gathering limit.”
According to Dr. Alexander-Scott, there were 591 new COVID-19 cases from Aug. 5 to Aug. 11 and 40% of those were people between the ages of 20–39. Of those cases, she said 49 had recently attended a birthday party, barbecue or church gathering.
In terms of testing, Raimondo said the state’s efforts have significantly brought down infections in nursing homes. In May, she said, 20% of all cases were tied to these facilities, and so far this month, that’s down to 5%.
The goal, according to the governor, is to have anyone who’s feeling sick to be able to get tested within 24 hours (it’s currently within two days, she noted) and get results back within two to three days. She acknowledged that the turnaround time for results is still an issue, but said it’s improved as of late.
“When we showed up overnight on the travel list for four states, we were immediately overrun with people who wanted to get tested, so I’m sorry if it took a few days before you could even get an appointment,” Raimondo said. “It’s definitely better now.”
Raimondo on Wednesday also launched the “Take It Outside” campaign, which aims to encourage Rhode Islanders to move more activities outdoors since, according to her, people are 19 times more likely to contract the virus while indoors.
Raimondo said the state will work with cities and towns as well as individual businesses to come up with ways to get people outside, such as closing more roadways and parking lots for outdoor dining and shopping and holding meetings and fitness classes outside.
“Let’s get creative, let’s have some fun, let’s figure out what we can do outdoors,” Raimondo said, adding that some funding will be put behind the initiative for certain accommodations like WiFi hotspots and heat lamps.
Raimondo also noted that while it’s safer to be outside, masks must still be worn when unable to maintain social distancing.
When it comes to unemployment, the governor said her administration spoke to the U.S. Department of Labor and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) about what needs to be done to disseminate another round of extra benefits for out-of-work Rhode Islanders.
How the state applies for that is still unclear, she said, along with how much the state would be eligible for and how the state would afford it.
“It could be a $10 million a week for Rhode Island, and it’s not clear whether we could use our federal COVID money to fill that,” Raimondo said.
Next week’s briefing will be held at 1 p.m. Monday instead of on Wednesday, according to Raimondo.