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Bristol-Warren teachers union sues to stop school from opening Monday

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Bristol-Warren Education Association has filed suit against the Bristol-Warren Regional School District, asking a judge to stop in-person learning from starting on Monday.

A spokesperson for the National Education Association Rhode Island (NEARI) confirmed the suit was filed late Thursday. It asks a judge to block the Bristol-Warren schools from opening Monday until they pass health and safety inspections.

“The employees … will suffer irreparable harm if they are forced to come to work, possibly exposing themselves to the novel coronavirus and COVID-19,” the lawsuit reads.

A court hearing is expected to be held Friday.

Bristol-Warren changed its plans for school reopening at a school committee meeting Wednesday night, deciding not to reopen the Colt Andrews School right away pending an “in depth cleaning and sanitization,” and to only bring back high school students once a week at Mount Hope High School.

Superintendent Jonathan Brice said the high school decision was made because there is not enough space to ensure six feet of distance between each student who opted to return to in-person school.

Guiteras Elementary, Rockwell Elementary, Hugh Cole Elementary and Kickemuit Middle School are still slated to reopen to in-person learning on Monday.

Brice did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on the lawsuit.

The suit comes as teachers unions have been battling Gov. Gina Raimondo’s administration over the reopening of schools during the pandemic, arguing state “walkthroughs” of school buildings were not true inspections and insufficient to confirm the buildings are safe for students and staff to return.

Robert Walsh, the executive director of NEARI, has been pointing to a state statute that says four entities — a local fire chief, local building inspector, the director of the R.I. Department of Health, and the director of the R.I. Department of Labor and Training — must “determine and notify” school districts every year by Aug. 1 if their buildings are up to code.

The lawsuit argues the statute mean inspections need to be done to determine whether every school meets the standards in the R.I. Department of Education’s checklist for COVID-19 facility readiness.

“If every school superintendent can’t say ‘here’s my letter showing every building has been inspected by those four entities,’ they are violating the law,” Walsh said in an interview Thursday before the lawsuit was filed.

There have been widespread concerns about whether all Rhode Island school buildings have proper air quality and circulation to reopen.

Health Department spokesperson Joseph Wendelken noted that the statute does not mention a requirement for “on-site school inspections.”

“That being said, the Rhode Island Department of Health does do dozens of school walkthroughs every year. We get to all schools every three years or so,” Wendelken said in an email.

He said more frequent annual inspections are done for school cafeterias and to make sure schools meet asbestos and radon standards.

The state did conduct walkthroughs of every school last week and this week, according to Raimondo, though she was careful not to refer to them as inspections after being questioned by teachers unions. The checklist being used also changed its heading language from “inspection” to “walkthrough” last week.

Target 12 has asked the R.I. Department of Education for copies of the completed checklists from each school and a list of schools that failed the walkthrough, but has not received the information as of Thursday evening.

The Education Department also refused to allow reporters to observe the walkthroughs of the public school buildings.

It’s unclear if other districts will be added to the lawsuit other than Bristol-Warren. The Providence Teachers Union had considered joining the suit to try and stop school from opening in Providence, but PTU President Maribeth Calabro confirmed she removed the union from the suit Thursday.

Calabro said Providence’s union is completing its “due diligence” and researching the matter before taking court action.

Providence is planning on reopening partially on Monday, with elementary school students returning full-time in a staggered manner, and middle and high school students returning over the next several weeks with hybrid schedules.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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