PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) ─ The formal decision from health officials on whether school districts will reopen in-person fully, partially or not at all might not come until Aug. 17, just two weeks before the start of school, Rhode Island education officials said Tuesday.
The rough timeline was discussed in a meeting of the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, also known as the K-12 Council, where parents and teachers also expressed concerns about the safety of students being back in the classroom full time amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
While school districts submitted draft reopening plans to the R.I. Department of Education (RIDE) on Friday, the finalized plans — required to be publicly posted by July 31 — will still include multiple scenarios for fully in-person, partial or limited in-person, and full remote learning.
The final decision on which of the three scenarios to actually implement when school starts on Aug. 31 will be up to the R.I Department of Health in early to mid-August, according to Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green. (A slide presented at the meeting said the date for the decision would be Aug. 17.)
Infante-Green said schools would open in person “only if the science and the data say it’s safe to do so,” and in collaboration with state and local education and health officials. Gov. Gina Raimondo set a “goal” on June 10 of returning to school fully in person, but has said it would depend on the science when the time comes.
“We have an obligation to ensure learning happens, under all and any conditions,” Infante-Green said. “We have made all of our decisions during this pandemic in a way that will put students, families and educators first.”
Despite that, multiple districts have already communicated their most-likely scenario, telling parents to start planning for their children to be in school about half the time and distance learning the other half.
Other districts have laid out their three scenarios and said they hope to return fully in person, but would wait for the public health guidance.
State leaders have not yet said what numbers they would be looking for in the COVID-19 data in order to move forward with the full in-person scenario. And while school may start out in a certain scenario, it could switch between distance and in-person learning depending on the trend of the pandemic.
“We are still in the process of evaluating school plans and determining the metrics on which these decisions will be based,” said Joseph Wendelken, a spokesperson for the Department of Health, in an email.
At the start of the meeting, more than a dozen parents and teachers urged RIDE not to open school at all (or at the most, implement a hybrid model) over concerns about the virus spreading among kids who could then bring it home.
Part of the concern was over the fact that students would not be required to wear masks while inside their “stable groups,” though they would be required while on the bus or in common areas.
“That means you will have around 26 students not wearing masks inside a poorly ventilated classroom breathing the same space for six hours,” said teacher Elisheva Stark. “I am afraid for my health, for the health of my students and the families that my students will be bringing this virus home to.”
“A girl can be sent home for wearing a tank top but we can’t require masks during a pandemic,” remarked Lisa Cardin, a teacher and parent. “We can recover lost learning standards. We cannot recover lost lives.”
Adam Cable, a social worker who said his wife is a Providence teacher, called it “irresponsible” to even consider in-person learning at this point.
“I understand there’s political pressure from the governor and commissioner and the president to go back to school,” Cable said. “The blood of anyone who dies is on your hands.”