Judge denies union attempt to block Bristol-Warren schools from opening

School Updates

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A Rhode Island Superior Court judge has paved the way for the Bristol-Warren Regional School District to reopen next week, after the teachers union filed suit to block in-person learning.

Judge Melissa Long denied the union’s request for a temporary restraining order, which would have stopped the schools from opening.

“The court cannot ignore that 73% of the parents and students have requested that students go to school in person or that an 11th-hour shift to distance learning would negatively impact students,” Long said as she announced her decision in court.

While the case only applied to the Bristol-Warren schools, it was thought to potentially have statewide implications if the judge had ruled in favor of the union.

“We do not believe the buildings in the Bristol-Warren school district are safe,” argued attorney Elizabeth Wiens, who represented the Bristol Warren Education Association and National Education Association Rhode Island. “Teachers don’t feel comfortable going back into the rooms.”

Superintendent Jonathan Brice thanked the judge for her decision, calling it “in the best interest of the students and staff of the Bristol-Warren school district.”

Long relied in part on an affidavit Brice submitted under oath, where he said the district was only opening the schools and classrooms that are ready to open under the CDC and RIDE guidelines.

The affidavit said the district purchased 270 box fans, rented at least one tent per school for outdoor learning space and has ensured six feet of distance between each student and teacher, among other measures.

The union submitted as evidence the state’s walkthrough checklist for Bristol-Warren, which indicated some items were still “in progress,” including multiple HVAC items. The walkthrough team also checked off “in progress” for this question: “Does each room have enough clean air from the central HVAC system?”

Brice wrote in the affidavit that a private HVAC company made repairs to the HVAC system, and any items marked “in progress” would be addressed, or already have been.

“We’ve also taken a number of other steps to support the increased air flow that are necessary for our classrooms,” Brice told reporters outside court.

Three elementary schools and one middle school are set to reopen to in-person learning on Monday in the regional school district, while a fourth elementary school — Colt Andrews — is not opening pending a deep-clean, after a staff member tested positive for COVID-19 and eight others had to quarantine as a result.

Mount Hope High School’s reopening plan has also been scaled back, with students only returning to the building once a week because of a lack of ability to space out six feet, the superintendent said.

The union’s arguments Friday unsuccessfully relied on 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.

Wiens argued the statute should be interpreted broadly to include all state regulations or codes, including the COVID-19 facilities guidance written by the R.I. Department of Health.

But Judge Long sided with the school department, which contended that the statute had nothing to do with COVID-19.

Long said the fact that Health Department guidance about COVID-19 preparedness had not been codified into a formal regulation meant it was not included in the state law about school building safety.

In announcing her decision she also cited an affidavit submitted by R.I. Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Kelvin Roldán, in which he wrote that Bristol-Warren had completed all tasks and was ready to open on Monday.

The district argued the lack of notification under the existing statute was not enough to prevent the schools from open.

“I don’t see how, based on this statute, she can get a restraining order to prevent us from putting over 2,400 students back in school next week,” said Mary Ann Carroll, attorney for the Bristol-Warren schools. “If they think there is a violation of that statute, then charge us the $500 as a misdemeanor, but don’t close our schools.”

Miriam Weizenbaum from Attorney General Peter Neronha’s office told the judge there would be “chaos” if she approved the restraining order, paving the way for petitioners from other school districts to seek to close their schools.

“There’d be a line outside the courtroom,” Weizenbaum said.

Robert Walsh, the executive director of the NEA Rhode Island, did not rule out further court actions against districts if the union thinks their buildings are not safe.

“This ruling only applies to Bristol-Warren,” Walsh said. “If there are districts in the state where the superintendents and the Department of Education would not certify that they would be ready to go in compliance with the guidance, you might see other districts choose to come back here.”

Walsh also praised school districts such as Warwick that decided to do full distance learning while they get schools ready, despite pressure from Gov. Gina Raimondo to reopen in-person.

“Do not be bullied into opening,” Walsh said. “If you are not ready to open a building or a particular classroom do not open.”

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

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