PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — As preparations for the upcoming academic year continue, Rhode Island schools have been given new guidance from state health officials on what to do should a student or teacher test positive for COVID-19.
The so-called “playbook” was announced Thursday during Gov. Gina Raimondo’s weekly Facebook Live forum with Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green and distributed to districts Friday evening.
It includes a glossary of important terms, a list of COVID-19 symptoms and protocol for handling each case, as well as how and when to safely introduce individuals back into the school environment.
“This Playbook provides clear guidance and structure to schools in their work to keep students, teachers, and staff as healthy and safe as possible this year when it comes to COVID-19,” state Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said in a statement.
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“The Playbook was developed using the best science and data we have on COVID-19 infection control,” she added. “We will continue to put public health first and rely on the facts in making decisions that are in best interest of students, parents, and educators.”
Raimondo and Infante-Green set a goal to have all Rhode Island public schools open on Monday, Aug. 31. Each district was required to submit three plans last month: one for full in-person, one for full distance learning, and a hybrid of the two.
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A formal decision on which plan will be used is not expected until Aug. 17. In order to fully reopen schools for in-person learning, the Health Department said there are benchmarks that must be met for the following criteria: statewide data, municipal data, testing capacity, the availability of supplies, and operational readiness.
Sarah Theberge, the president of the Rhode Island Parent and Teachers Association (PTA), said they want to see all students, teachers and staff safely return to the classroom, but she believes the process of deciding how best to do so lacked public input.
“Everybody should have a seat at the table because everybody’s perspective is going to be different about what going back to school should and needs to look like,” Theberge said Friday.
She and some parents have expressed concerns about fully reopening schools, pointing to the recent uptick in cases, which prompted Gov. Gina Raimondo to reduce the limit on social gatherings.
“We want the kids to be happy, we want them to have the socialization, but not at the detriment of their health,” Theberge said. “If we can’t have more than 15 people at a gathering, how can we have a classroom?”
Audrey Lucas, a spokesperson for Raimondo’s office, released a statement emphasizing that parents won’t be forced to send their children to school if they’re not comfortable doing so.
“This is exactly why the Governor has directed RIDE to work with every school district to ensure that they have plans in place to accommodate students who choose distance learning,” she wrote. “That said, we know that kids benefit from in-person learning and will continue to use science and data to guide our reopening plans and decision-making.”
The PTA is calling for equitable funding for every student at every school, according to Theberge. She said anything less would add to an already divided educational experience based on ZIP code and income.
“We want to make sure that those students who are learning from home are receiving the same exact education as those who are choosing to do in-person learning,” she said.
Ultimately, Theberge said she and the PTA believe that now matter how good the planning, a positive case in a school brings far too great of a risk.
“Is full-time in-person learning feasible?” she asked. “I don’t know that it is.”