PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — In its latest attempt to push back on in-person learning in Providence’s aging school buildings during the coronavirus pandemic, the Providence Teachers Union is asking a federal agency to investigate the health and safety of the buildings.
In a seven-page letter sent to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which is part of the CDC, the union requested a “Health Hazard Evaluation or modified research
initiative on the heightened risk or impact of coronavirus exposure on school employees as they return to an in-person school setting.”
The letter, signed by Union President Maribeth Calabro, says the district’s plan “fails to adequately address the latest scientific data that shows that the coronavirus is not only transmitted by droplet or fomite transmission, but by airborne/aerosol transmission. Classrooms are places where a lot of talking takes place; children are not going to be perfect at social distancing; and the more people in a room, the more opportunities for aerosols to accumulate if the ventilation is poor.”
The union is not currently considering any court action to try and halt in-person school, Calabro said. (The Providence Teachers Union backed out of a lawsuit filed late last week by the Bristol-Warren Education Association to try and stop schools from opening, which turned out to be unsuccessful on Friday.)
Providence had roughly 7,000 students return to in-person learning on Monday, but thousands more who were learning remotely on Monday will phase-in to either full or partial in-person school over the next week and month. About 6,500 of the district’s 24,000 students enrolled in a virtual learning academy for the entire semester.
“It’s our moral imperative to ensure that our schools are as safe as possible,” Calabro said. “The more students we’re going to be having in our schools, the more likely it is that we’re going to be spreading transmission of COVID-19.”
In a news conference outside the Alan Shawn Feinstein school, Calabro blasted the state’s recent building inspections, referred to as “walkthroughs,” which she said were not thorough enough and did not leave teachers feeling confident that their classrooms had proper ventilation to prevent spread of the virus.
She also criticized the district for waiting until the day before school started to release the results of the walkthroughs, leaving little time for the union to take any action. (The state also refused to allow reporters to observe any of the walkthrough inspections.)
“While I appreciate the sudden urgency for transparency at the 11th hour on a Sunday, I would’ve preferred it weeks ago when I had asked for it,” Calabro said.
Teachers also posted on social media throughout the weekend that their classrooms were not clean and ready for students, often tagging Gov. Gina Raimondo — who has pushed for in-person school — in their posts.
In response to criticism from Calabro, custodial company Aramark said it had deep-cleaned and sanitized 4.5 million square feet of Providence schools and added new maintenance to its duties including HVAC systems and plexiglass barriers.
“We thank our 240 Aramark Providence employees for their hard work, and for going above and beyond to ensure that Providence Schools were ready to safely reopen today,” a spokesperson said in an email.
“Right now we’re fighting a pandemic, and we should be working together to get our kids ready and to be front and center,” R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green said Monday morning in response to the union. “So I keep saying: we’re fighting a pandemic and not each other. They can say what they want to say.”
“We welcome anyone who wants to walk our buildings,” she added at an afternoon news conference after the school day ended in Providence.
Infante-Green, who took state control of the Providence Public Schools last fall, is in the middle of negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with the union. The previous contract expired Aug. 31.
In a statement Sunday accompanying the release of the inspection results, Providence’s operations team wrote that all fan and HEPA filter installation items marked as “in-progress” in the inspection reports have now been completed.
Student desks are separated “to the extent possible,” according to the district, which is not always six feet apart.
Calabro’s letter to the feds notes that Providence’s teachers skew older, with nearly half of the 1,940 teachers over the age of 50, 15% older than 60, and only 7.5% percent younger than 30. Age, in addition to underlying conditions, is thought to increase the risk of having a severe case of the virus.
It’s not yet clear whether NIOSH will take the union up on its request. The letter acknowledge it’s an “unusual” request, and suggested the agency could do limited on-site visits along with virtual interviews with district staff in order to assess the buildings safely during the pandemic.
A CDC spokesperson provided a link to to a brochure that says after an evaluation is requested, a member of the Health Hazard Evaluation team contacts both the requester and the employer and then decides whether to conduct an on-site evaluation.