PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo announced Friday that all Rhode Island public schools will be closed next week in an effort to stem the spread of coronavirus after the number of cases in the state doubled overnight.
Raimondo said she is moving up students’ planned April vacations in an effort to keep the school calendar on track for the rest of the academic year. Teachers, superintendents and principals will work next week to prepare distance learning plans if the closure needs to continue.
The governor asked that child care facilities remain open next week to help parents who have to work while schools are closed.
Private schools are also being urged to close.
Later on Friday, the Diocese of Providence announced Catholic schools will not be “physically in session” next week but some will continue through virtual learning. The Diocese advised parents of pre-K students at Catholic schools to check with their individual programs.
As of Friday afternoon, nine more people in Rhode Island had tested positive or presumptive positive for the virus, upping the total from five to 14, Raimondo said. (Results are considered “presumptive” until they are confirmed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)
R.I. Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said the newly announced cases included five women and four men. Three of the nine patients are children. One of the nine is in isolation at a nursing home, while the other eight are recovering at home.
Alexander-Scott would not confirm the cases were related to schools, but during the press conference, Cranston High School West officials sent an email to parents confirming that a student had tested positive for the disease. The officials are now urging all students, faculty and staff at Cranston West to quarantine themselves at home for two weeks, according to the email.
Westerly Public Schools posted on its website Friday afternoon that one of the cases is a student at Springbrook Elementary School. As a result, all Springbrook students and staff have been asked to self-quarantine through March 25.
Health officials said a total of 200 people have been tested since testing began Feb. 29, and the state currently has the capacity to test up to 80 times per day. Alexander-Scott said the capacity to test at both public and private labs continues to grow.
Raimondo — who declared a state of emergency earlier this week — made the announcement at a news conference with Alexander-Scott and other cabinet members. Alexander-Scott said the “aggressive steps” being taken Friday are being made as the likelihood of community transmission of the virus grows.
State officials said they are still investigating the circumstances surrounding the new cases, but so far they mostly appeared to be connected to travel or direct exposure to someone with the disease.
Rhode Island joins a growing number of states and major cities that are also closing schools statewide including Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, and West Virginia.
In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker said Friday he was not yet ready to order a statewide closure of schools, though he did urge the postponement of large gatherings. Individual districts including Attleboro have begun to announce their own decisions to close next week.
In Rhode Island, other steps announced Friday included a ban on visits to nursing homes and an executive order requiring anyone who has traveled internationally to self-quarantine for 14 days after returning from abroad. The governor has already signed emergency regulations expanding eligibility for unemployment and other benefits.
At the same time, the governor continued to urge Rhode Islanders “to take a collective deep breath” and try to contain their anxieties about the pandemic. She emphasized that residents should work from home if possible, avoid large crowds and stay home if they’re sick, though she also said it was OK to run errands or visit restaurants.
“What we do right now is going to determine our collective future for the next weeks and months,” she said.
Raimondo reiterated her request to cancel all events that would bring together 250 people or more. “Large gatherings: shut them down,” she said.
The governor urged residents to pay attention to official announcements and trusted news sources as the crisis continues. “It is deeply unfortunate the amount of misinformation that is flying around on social media about the virus,” she said. Daily news briefings will be held going forward.
“Don’t panic, don’t spread rumors and don’t make this worse than it is,” Raimondo added.
At the State House, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio announced the General Assembly will not meet next week based on guidance provided by the Health Department.
President Trump has scheduled a 3 p.m. news conference at the White House amid reports he may declare a national emergency over the pandemic.
Alexandra Leslie, Brandon Truitt, Steph Machado, Eli Sherman and Brittany Schaefer contributed to this report.
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