PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Although the school year has just ended in Rhode Island, state leaders are already looking ahead to the fall.
Gov. Dan McKee announced Wednesday morning that all K-12 schools will return to full in-person learning and districts will no longer be required to provide a distance learning option for students.
“It is crucial that we accelerate learning across the state, and we know there is no substitute for in-person learning,” R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green said. “Rhode Island led the way in distance learning and safely transitioned to the classroom in the midst of a pandemic, and we will continue our collaboration to keep students safe and help them grow as we work to move past COVID-19.”
State leaders said districts should still create plans to ensure students will be able to learn if they have to stay home for short periods of time due to illness, isolation, or quarantine.
Additionally, the R.I. Department of Health will review requests from districts that want to implement full virtual learning days for all students, such as a snow day.
“One of our team’s top priorities has been getting students safely and fully back into the classroom this fall. That’s why we worked hard to quickly vaccinate our teachers and school staff and it’s why we’re laser-focused on getting students vaccinated over the summer,” McKee said. “The guidance we’re announcing today coupled with strong vaccination rates put Rhode Island in a good place to ensure our students can be back in school where they learn best.”
As of Wednesday, nearly 90% of teachers and staff in the state were fully vaccinated, according to McKee. Additionally, about 60% of people ages 16–18 and more than 40% of those ages 12–15 were also fully vaccinated.
Currently, the Pfizer vaccine is available to everyone ages 12 and older in Rhode Island, while the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are available to everyone ages 18 and older.
Fully vaccinated students and staff will no longer be required to wear a mask indoors, officials announced. The state urges each district to establish policies requiring all unvaccinated individuals to wear a mask while indoors.
Masks are still required by federal order on school buses and other forms of public transportation in the U.S., therefore will continue to be mandated in Rhode Island until further notice.
State leaders say there will be no bus capacity restrictions in the fall. They will continue to recommend distance between riders, keeping stable bus groups together as much as possible, and designing and implementing seating charts with assigned seats.
“The deliberate, science-based approach we are taking to the return to in-person learning in the fall will help us give every student in every ZIP code in Rhode Island an opportunity to thrive in the classroom,” Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said. “Building on a year and a half of unprecedented partnership, we are going to be providing school communities with ongoing support and making sure that families and eligible students have every opportunity to get vaccinated against COVID-19 between now and the first day of school.”
Stable groups of students will continue to be recommended whenever possible, especially in grades with students who are not yet eligible to get vaccinated, according to state leaders. Three feet of distance for indoor activities in shared spaces will be recommended for non-stable elementary school groups and age groups that are not yet eligible for the vaccine.
Distancing is not required for fully vaccinated groups.
Field trips are allowed to resume as long as COVID-19 health and safety policies are met: stable groups should remain consistent during field trips, which means the same classroom groups should participate as a stable group in field trip activities as much as possible.
For quarantining, the state will recommend a “7 day with testing” requirement, taking into account the minimal disruption to students’ education and families’ lives. The Health Department may also recommend a longer quarantine length in certain situations.
Schools will have opt-in choices for how to design and resource their testing plans including symptomatic testing, outbreak testing, and asymptomatic testing.
Infante-Green ended the briefing with a message to the students: “We are going to have the best year ever. I know this has been really difficult but if you haven’t been vaccinated, please get vaccinated. We are ready for you, we are anxious to have you every single day in our classrooms and we are going to make this the best year that you have ever had, I promise you that.”
The 2021-22 school year guidance can be found on Back2SchoolRI.com which will be updated throughout the summer with the latest updates and resourced on the return to school.
The current guidance may be revised once the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention releases their recommendations for K-12 reopening this fall.