PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Nearly all school districts in Rhode Island have been given the green light to reopen for full, in-person learning on Sept. 14, Gov. Gina Raimondo announced Monday.
According to Raimondo, every district except Providence and Central Falls met the five metrics needed to fully reopen with all students. Those two cities did not fall below 100 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents last week, the required municipal virus rate, but can still partially reopen.
Districts are allowed to “ease into” full in-person learning, Raimondo said, but the expectation is that all students will be in school by Tuesday, Oct. 13, other than those whose parents opted them out.
“Obviously, just because you have the green light doesn’t mean you need to step on the gas and go fully on day one,” she said. “We hope and expect that you’ll proceed with caution.”
Video Now: Governor Raimondo discusses the reopening plan for RI public schools (story continues below)
“Some districts are going to proceed faster, other districts are going to have a bit more of a cautious approach, and we think that’s fine, we think that’s appropriate,” Raimondo continued. “We’re saying open as much as you can beginning Sept. 14, and many of you are going to take a staggered approach, which we feel is fully responsible.”
“Giving our communities the ability to stagger the entrance gives them the opportunity to get to know the new procedures, the things that need to go in place, and to be reassured that we’re taking our time and doing things the right way,” Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green added.
Providence and Central Falls can start the year with partial in-person learning, and the state will revisit the data on Oct. 13 to see if it’s possible for those schools to fully reopen.
Providence quickly put out a plan that includes bringing all elementary school students back on Sept. 14, and using a combination of remote and hybrid learning for older students.
The newest middle and high schoolers (6th and 9th grades) will start school alternating between in-school and remote learning days on a two-week rotation. Students in grades 7, 10, 11 and 12 will start out distance learning, but will transition to the alternating schedule later in September (grades 7 and 10) and October (grades 8, 11 and 12).
Students in special populations such as multilingual learners and students in self-contained special education programs will be able to return to school as well.
The model does not affect the 6,500 students enrolled in the Virtual Learning Academy, which will run remotely for the entire semester.
Laura Hart, a spokesperson for the district, said about 8,500 out of Providence’s 24,000 students will be at school in person on Sept. 14.
Central Falls — the other district that can only do a partial reopening — has not yet made a determination on its plan, Superintendent Stephanie Downey Toledo said.
“We are working with the state to get further clarification and will finalize our reopening plan following those conversations,” Downey Toledo said in an email.
Video Now: Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green discusses reopening schools (story continues below)
Private and independent schools are also cleared to reopen, Raimondo said, since Rhode Island has met the four state-level metrics and those schools are not bound by the municipal metric, with students coming from all over.
Several school committees including Warwick and Pawtucket had already voted to start the year with full distance learning prior to Monday’s announcement. Raimondo said she hopes they will change their minds.
“If they don’t, certainly, they’ll be exposing themselves to any number of lawsuits of behalf of parents who may demand in-person learning,” she warned, adding that it’s possible districts could face federal funding issues if they don’t reopen. She said it was still not clear what the state’s legal authority is to force districts to reopen their schools.
Pawtucket appeared to double down on its distance learning plan Monday. Superintendent Cheryl McWilliams said in an email the School Committee is “reaffirming” its previously-passed plan that starts the school year with fully remote learning for grades 1 through 12.
Special populations in those grades — such as multilingual learners and special education students — will be allowed to come back, and pre-K and kindergarten will also take place in person in Pawtucket.
“This decision prioritizes safety and well-being of Pawtucket students and staff and emphasizes equitable models for learning for these groups,” McWilliams said.
Other districts that the governor is urging to reopen fully in person are also still deciding what to do on Sept. 14.
Cranston’s School Committee is scheduled to meet Wednesday to make a decision between three reopening plans, all of which are hybrid models but include full in-person learning for certain grade levels.
The governor asked parents to “be patient, be kind and creative and understanding” with each other and with state and school officials, especially during the first few weeks of school.
“There will be new hallway procedures, new lunch procedures, new bathroom procedures, new drop-off procedures, new pick-up procedures … it’s all going to be different,” she said.
Parents will still be given the option for their children to learn remotely. In Providence, for example, more than 6,500 students have been enrolled in the virtual learning academy, which will continue regardless of the partial reopening scenario.
“No one’s ever going to force you to send your kid to school,” Raimondo said. “I’ve talked with lots of parents whose children have underlying health conditions, developmentally disabled, live at home with a mom or a dad or a cousin who is themselves very sick.”
“Do what’s right for your family,” she added. “But it is our obligation to provide every student in the state of Rhode Island with a high-quality public education, and by Oct. 13, they all ought to be back in school.”
Video Now: Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott on COVID-19 data, reopening schools (story continues below)
To make sure every school is safe and following the rules, the state has put together a team to conduct a comprehensive walk-through of every building before students return, according to Raimondo, and there will be a continuous audit process throughout the year. She said if a school is found not to be up to snuff, it won’t be allowed to reopen.
“The facility will remain closed, the children can learn either in another building or distance learning until we work with the facility to bring it up to code,” Raimondo said.
Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said the state will be receiving advice from Rhode Island-based Arden Engineering on a number of matters, particularly air circulation in school buildings.
“These school walk-throughs are just one way we are doing everything we can to make sure that school communities are ready for Sept. 14,” she said. “Another way that we are ensuring school readiness is by encouraging schools that are reopening for in-person learning to consider the steady, phased reopening approach that the governor described.”
“As I’ve said in the past, we will be all over any and every case associated with a school,” Alexander-Scott added. “We have had months of practice. We’ve known for years, as the Department of Health, how to do case investigations and contact-tracing, and what was shared nationally last week was the fact that we applied that knowledge well when it came to child care, and we’re going to do the same again in expanding that to schools.”
New data from the R.I. Department of Health showed 167 new positive cases since data was last released on Friday.
Health officials also announced two more COVID-19-related deaths on Monday, bringing the state’s total to 1,048.
As of mid-day Monday, 77 COVID-19 patients were in the hospital, of which nine are in the intensive care unit and five are on ventilators.
Raimondo also announced Monday that state beaches and parks will remain open after Labor Day with no lifeguards or parking fees.
As for the holiday weekend, she urged Rhode Islanders to go out and enjoy themselves but to do so safely by wearing masks, avoiding crowds and keeping social gatherings to no more than 15 people.
Raimondo said the safest way to celebrate is to do so outdoors, and issued a reminder about the Take It Outside campaign she launched last week. Through the initiative, people and businesses can reserve space at state parks.