PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — After months of urging school districts to remain physically open as much as possible, R.I. Department of Education leaders say they will give districts the “flexibility” to shift to distance learning on Dec. 21, days before the scheduled Christmas break.
The updated statewide school calendar also allows districts to do a staggered return to in-person schooling after the New Year, returning between Jan. 7 and Jan. 15.
The move is being made in order to allow more time for contact-tracing and quarantining, and for the state to ramp up surveillance testing options for districts upon return from the break.
Many districts have already chosen to move to distance learning until the new year, citing staffing difficulties because of COVID cases and quarantines. Gov. Gina Raimondo chastised those moving to distance learning at her weekly coronavirus briefing on Thursday.
“To the superintendents out there who have decided to go virtual, I want you to look yourself in the mirror and try a little harder because I think the kids deserve better,” Raimondo said — remarks that triggered significant blowback from educators.
Monday’s move represents the first time state leaders are endorsing — but not requiring — a move to full distance learning. The state had previously encouraged districts to move their high schools to 25% capacity during the “pause” that started after Thanksgiving and extends until Dec. 20.
Teachers unions have been calling for a full shift to remote learning for weeks, after initially trying to stop schools from reopening in the first place in September.
In her weekly interview with 12 News on Monday, Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green said there is concern that people who are traveling over the holidays could bring the virus into the schools.
“We wanted to give districts the option,” she said, noting that there were travel issues during the Thanksgiving break. “Even though we asked people not to travel, we know some people that went to Disney. And they came back and went to several districts, so that’s challenging.”
The change in the calendar amounts to adding three virtual days prior to the regularly scheduled holiday break, and three to 10 virtual days after the break.
RIDE is encouraging teachers and students to socially distance and follow COVID-19 guidelines over the holiday break.
Infante-Green said the goal is to have on-site COVID-19 testing at schools by the time in-person learning returns in January.
“I want to thank the district leaders, teachers, staff and families for their dedication this year and this semester particularly,” Infante-Green said in a statement. “It has been a challenging year but an incredible display of our school communities’ dedication to our students’ learning.”
She continued, “We are working to ensure that our school leaders have the flexibility to respond to their community needs while planning for a safe return to school in January in classrooms across Rhode Island.”