PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — All but two Rhode Island municipalities have a rate of COVID-19 spread low enough to reopen schools, according to the state’s metrics, after two cities dropped below the threshold on Wednesday.
Providence and Central Falls are still above the metric — set at 100 new cases per 100,000 residents per week — which would preclude them from holding in-person class if schools were to reopen this week.
Last week, there were four cities above the threshold: Providence, Central Falls, Pawtucket and Cranston. But Pawtucket dropped from 114 weekly cases per 100,000 to 68 on Wednesday, while Cranston dropped from 106 to 44, according to the R.I. Department of Health’s numbers. (The data is generally updated on Wednesdays.)
The new data released Wednesday listed Central Falls’ weekly rate as 160 cases per 100,000 residents, and Providence’s at 117 per 100,000.
“We are prepared to implement any of the four reopening scenarios for the start of the school year and are waiting on the latest science and data rather than speculating on which scenario is most likely,” said Laura Hart, a spokesperson for Providence Superintendent Harrison Peters.
Central Falls Superintendent Stephanie Downey Toledo did not comment.
(story continues below chart.)
The Health Department is excluding residents of congregate settings such as nursing homes from the data being used to make the school reopening decision.
“This is because we are trying to measure spread within the community,” Health Department spokesperson Joseph Wendelken explained in an email. “Often, the spread that happens within congregate settings is isolated, and not really indicative of spread happening in the community.”
“For example,” he continued, “if there is an outbreak in a nursing home, or in a detention center, that is different than that same number of cases being identified among people who are out circulating in the community. For some towns, a bad outbreak in a nursing home could push their rate close to 100 per 100,000, even though there is almost no direct interaction between congregate setting residents and members of the school community.”
Wendelken said there are still internal conversations about how to categorize college dorms, which are technically congregate settings but whose residents will interact more with the community when they return to campus. For now, college students are being included in the data.
The municipal COVID-19 rate is just one of five metrics being used to determine if schools can reopen, so even districts in cities or towns with low virus rates may not be ready to reopen if they don’t meet the other requirements.
Districts have to be operationally ready with plans, health screenings and protocols, plus they have to have a supply of masks, cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer.
Two of the other reopening metrics are determined at the state level: Rhode Island must be in Phase 3 or higher, and must be able to test all symptomatic people within 48 to 72 hours.
In the Raimondo administration’s weekly coronavirus briefing Wednesday, Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green said it was still important to strive for an in-person option, while giving families the option to learn virtually.
“Let me just give everyone a visual,” Infante-Green said. “Three kids, one household, two bedrooms. All sitting at one table in different grades. How does it happen?”
“We’re all in different places,” she said. “That’s why it’s our responsibility as an education system to provide the choice and meet everybody where they are.”