PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Providence and Central Falls still have coronavirus rates too high to reopen in-person school, as superintendents in eight municipalities with lower rates say they still may need to implement full-time distance learning to start the year.
The state’s five metrics to reopen school in person include a requirement that municipalities have a virus rate of less than 100 new cases per 100,000 residents per week.
As of Wednesday, Central Falls had 196 new cases per 100,000 for last week, and Providence was at 119 cases per 100,000, according to the R.I. Department of Health. (When not adjusted for population size, Central Falls had 38 new cases last week and Providence had 213.)
The numbers exclude cases in congregate care settings such as nursing homes.
Pawtucket, while below the 100 case threshold at 89 new cases last week per 100,000, had the third-highest rate.
The data showing prior week totals is typically updated on Wednesdays, but Health Department spokesperson Joseph Wendelken said it will be updated again ahead of Monday, when state leaders are expected to make an announcement on whether districts can reopen to in-person learning.
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Providence has been aiming for some in-person schooling for the upcoming year, while offering a separate virtual learning academy for parents who opt out.
“In-person learning matters,” Superintendent Harrison Peters said on Friday. “I am totally in support of bringing as many students back safely as we can. No question.”
While the majority of Rhode Island municipalities have virus rates deemed low enough to open in-person learning, eight superintendents and nine union presidents on Friday wrote a letter to Gov. Gina Raimondo and Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, expressing a myriad of concerns about bringing students back into schools.
The superintendents — from Coventry, Cranston, Johnston, Lincoln, Pawtucket, West Warwick, Warwick and Woonsocket — detailed “significant concerns” about air quality and filtration in the schools, staffing shortages, transportation issues and the availability of supplies. (The teachers union presidents from those communities also signed the letter, plus the union president from North Providence.)
The school leaders’ letter said they were concerned about both statewide and municipal COVID-19 numbers, and are “hoping for an increased availability of testing locally and a 48-hour turnaround on test results,” which is also one of the reopening metrics. Raimondo said Monday the school testing plan would be released Wednesday.
The district leaders also lamented the lack of planning time between the Aug. 31 reopening decision and the Sept. 14 first day of school.
“We understand that the RIDOH wants the most recent data available to make the decisions on school reopening, however, the reality of scheduling and planning for the return of thousands of students and staff to hundreds of schools requires more than 10 days’ notice,” the letter said. “In the absence of firm guidance, we feel it is our responsibility to notify our state leaders that if we, as the district leaders, do not feel that we can confidently and safely meet the metrics above, then schools in our communities will open in a virtual/distance learning environment.”
The same coalition of superintendents — with the addition of North Providence — had previously signed on to a letter in July advocating for a hybrid school model, at a time when Raimondo had set a goal of full in-person learning.
North Providence Superintendent Joseph Goho said he chose not to sign on to the Aug. 21 letter because he “felt that it contained some information that was not applicable to my school district, and/or not within my purview to decide.” In part, he said his district has not had trouble acquiring supplies and has not yet determined if there will be a staffing shortage.
Goho said his district would abide by Monday’s reopening decision unless there is some obstacle preventing North Providence from doing so, “where to this point is not evident in my district,” Goho said.
Asked for a response to the letter, a spokesperson for Infante-Green said “we have worked hand in hand with our school district leaders to ensure the safety of our school communities and promote the best possible educational outcomes for our students.”
“We will continue to work closely with and be responsive to our school leaders, in accordance with the latest public health guidance and our metrics, as we work to get as many students learning in person this fall as is safely possible,” said Pete Janhunen, the RIDE spokesperson.
Janhunen did not answer a question about whether the state would try and require the districts to reopen their schools, if that’s the decision made Monday.
Raimondo and Infante-Green continued to make the case Monday for the option of in-person schooling, pointing to stories from families who did not have success with distance learning and cannot stay home from work to supervise at-home school.
The state has opened a new education operations center at the R.I. Department of Education, which will provide testing and rapid response to coronavirus cases in school. The state is also planning to conduct facilities audits to determine if school buildings are ready to open.