‘Let’s live differently’: Back-to-school efforts depend on normalizing pandemic protocols, health officials say

School Updates

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) ─ In order to successfully get children back to school this fall, state health officials are urging all Rhode Islanders to normalize the the way we live during a pandemic.

Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green was joined by Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott and Medical Director Dr. Jim McDonald during an online forum for families Thursday to detail the steps the state is taking to ensure students, faculty and staff are fully prepared for their to return to school.

Infante-Green said one of the most frequent questions they’re hearing from parents is the difference between stable groups of 30 individuals versus the state’s limit of 15 people allowed at social gatherings.

Alexander-Scott said when it comes to “stable pods,” they’re groups of students and faculty that are consistent day-to-day. She said when students and teachers are together in assigned groups, it helps the state quickly and effectively mitigate the spread of the virus.

“If there is a positive case and there’s a stable pod where there is assigned seating, it allows us to very quickly determine who is in the group, how we respond, where they’re located and how we can quickly get to those who are considered direct contacts,” Alexander-Scott explained, adding that the stable pods will vary in size based on age, class size and the ability for students to take direction from their teacher.

“The smaller the better, but the core principal is keeping the groups consistent,” she continued.

McDonald likened the consistent groupings to sports teams.

“We play a whole season together,” McDonald said. “I know the manager and the coach, I’m used to them telling me what to do, where to go and what to do better… We know who they are and we know they will be there every day.”

Alexander-Scott said these assigned groupings will be consistent throughout the entire school year.

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McDonald said assigned seating also applies to school buses. He said attendance should be recorded each day to determine who was one the bus, when they were on the bus and where they were sitting.

Starting next week, Alexander-Scott said teams of state health and education officials will be conducting walkthroughs at school buildings before they open to ensure they’re in compliance with the Department of Health’s safety guidelines.

“This is one of the many critical steps in reopening efforts,” Alexander-Scott said.

The teams are part of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s new education operations center, which will be staffed by a variety of state agencies and the Rhode Island National Guard.

Alexander-Scott said the walkthroughs will also help school officials better understand how they can adapt state safety protocols to their facilities.

“Being able to understand what your current systems are and seeing how they fit together well,” she explained. “Knowing what exists in your facilities ─ capacity, capability of those buildings and the structure ─ and to continue to be flexible to figure out ways things can work.”

McDonald said while the state is hard at work ensuring a safe return to school, he expressed the importance of normalizing this new way of living.

He said if parents teach their children the importance of wearing masks and social distancing prior to returning to school, it will feel more natural to them.

“If we don’t live differently during this pandemic, we are doomed to perpetuate it,” he said. “So let’s live differently… If we’re willing to live differently, we get to live well and we get to live well together, that is something that, I believe, is worth fighting for.”

The state is expected to make a decision next week on whether Rhode Island schools can reopen in person, after delaying the start of school by two weeks until Sept. 14.

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