PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Reopening the state’s schools will depend on a number of factors, including the need for quicker COVID-19 test results and the less concentration of the virus in each school district community.
With the first day of school scheduled just a month away, the state’s Health and Education departments released a school reopening readiness plan that offers a series of questions to help determine “whether it’s safe to fully reopen” schools.
Dr. James McDonald, the state’s medical director, said “countless hours” were spent by personnel from both departments to create the metric.
One goal is to have “the ability to test all symptomatic staff and students and on average get results within 48-72 hours,” according to the metric.
McDonald admits the state is not there yet, saying the current average time for results is “unacceptable.”
According to McDonald, delays in results in Rhode Island are due to out-of-state labs prioritizing the speed of results in other states with higher positivity rates. The out-of-state labs partner with private commercial labs in Rhode Island.
“So, quite frankly we’re just getting pushed to the back of the line,” McDonald said. “I think as testing gets much larger in Rhode Island, we’re going to be able to solve our own problems.”
He said he expects quicker results by the second week of August, about two weeks before school is slated to start.
The one-page document also indicates the state should be in Phase 3 or higher of the economic reopening plan for schools to reopen.
Crowds of people without masks and restaurants not following protocols were factors in Gov. Gina Raimondo deciding to extend Phase 3 for another month on Wednesday — the day it was scheduled to expire.
A surge of cases that sets the state back a phase could end reopening plans, according to McDonald.
“I don’t see it happening if we go back to Phase 2. I really don’t,” McDonald said. “We have to follow protocol. I think we can do that.”
This metric also asks about each municipality’s “incidence rates,” a factor that could be a problem in the more densely populated communities where hot spots have been an issue for months.
“What we’re really trying to measure is how hot is the pandemic in your city or has it cooled down quite a bit?” McDonald said. “We aren’t announcing that number right now because we’re still trying to make sure we have the right number, but I would expect it to be a number per 100,000 people per week.”
One question that would have been answered with an absolute “no” only months ago is whether each school has enough cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer and face masks.
“The supply chain is definitely better now,” McDonald said.
Several questions were aimed at the “operational readiness” of each district that are asked to have their own health screening protocols, a plan to help staff and students if they become ill and a “point-person” for testing and contact tracing.
McDonald said the underlying key for the process is everyone needs to follow pandemic protocol, such as wearing masks and reducing crowds.
“We have a lot to gain by managing this pandemic excellently,” McDonald said. “We have a lot to lose if we head in the wrong direction.”