PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) — Two weeks into the start of the public school year in Rhode Island, the deputy commissioner of the R.I. Department of Education sent an email to Pawtucket’s superintendent.
The urban district had been holding school entirely remotely for almost all 1st grade through 12th grade students and wasn’t planning to bring them back until at least January, whereas state education leaders were aiming to get students back in school by Oct. 13.
Special needs students, pre-K, kindergarten and beginner English learners had returned to four school buildings in Pawtucket that were deemed safe to occupy, but 11 other buildings remained closed.
In the Oct. 1 email, the deputy commissioner — Dr. Kelvin Roldán — referenced a phone call he’d had with the superintendent about the matter.
“As I mentioned, the issues that you raised are difficult but not insurmountable,” he wrote the superintendent, Dr. Cheryl McWilliams. “One solution might be to focus on a return of only PK-5 students to reduce density and address ventilation and other aforementioned concerns. It’s hard to define solutions without getting a closer look at the conditions of the facilities.”
He offered to deploy RIDE “in short order” with the Education Operations Center (EdOC), a multi-agency operation run by the National Guard to help districts handle COVID-19, to take a look at the buildings that were not open.
McWilliams replied, but did not set up a meeting.
“The 11 buildings not currently housing students, will not be used during this time,” McWilliams wrote. “The School Committee indicated they will reassess in December to determine how we will move forward in January.”
That was the spark for a public dispute between the administration of Gov. Gina Raimondo and the leaders of the Pawtucket school system, which has led the governor to repeatedly rebuke the district leaders from her highly visible coronavirus press briefing.
“I have a huge disappointment for the School Committee in Pawtucket,” Raimondo said in her televised remarks last week. “Why is it that you are robbing the children of Pawtucket the opportunity to learn in school?”
The comments led the Pawtucket Teachers’ Alliance to demand an apology, saying Raimondo had “insulted the residents of the city of Pawtucket and the professionals in the Pawtucket School Department.” The union also blasted the governor for not acknowledging that some students are learning in person.
Raimondo had made similar comments the prior week, on Oct. 7, after praising a previous target of her ire — Warwick — for finally making a plan to transition from distance leaning to a hybrid model. With her Oct. 13 deadline to reopen schools looming, she asked Pawtucket to do the same.
“It is the poor, black and brown children in the city of Pawtucket … who will fall the furthest behind if you don’t do your job and get them back in school,” Raimondo warned.
Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien got involved the next day, attempting to serve as an intermediary between the two sides, according to the emails obtained by Target 12.
Roldán told Grebien on Oct. 8 that the R.I. Department of Health could send Arden, the contracted engineering firm, into Pawtucket schools the next day to assess ventilation and other facilities needs that could help make the schools safer. (As it stands, Pawtucket has only opened the four schools in the district with HVAC systems.)
He listed a team of RIDE and Health Department officials that could come to Pawtucket to the next day.
The meeting did not happen. Grebien sent a follow-up email to Superintendent McWilliams and Pawtucket School Committee Chair Jay Charbonneau, indicating that both were declining to meet with state officials.
“From your text I understand you both have declined to meet at this time,” Grebien wrote. “I’m sure everyone will agree, that we will always put the best interest of the children, families, teachers and district.” He offered to assist both the school district and the state moving forward.
“I have to say that this is not an acceptable response,” Roldán responded in an email directed to McWilliams. “The Commissioner and Governor’s office are asking to meet with you and others to better understand your concerns and provide adequate support. Please let me know when you will be available to meet.”
McWilliams replied by reiterating her support for the School Committee’s decision, and did not set up a time to meet.
“There is no question that we all are working to do the best for our children during a most challenging and unprecedented time,” McWilliams said. “I mean no disrespect to the Governor’s or Commissioner’s Office, in my position as Superintendent, I work for the School Committee.”
McWilliams has not responded to a request by Target 12 to speak about the decision to close the school buildings or explain why she declined to let the state’s engineers come assess the buildings.
But Jay Charbonneau, the school committee chair, confirmed via email that the district declined to meet with state officials, citing Raimondo’s rhetoric about the district including her comment about “poor, black and brown children.”
“The Pawtucket School Committee has had a target on our back since deciding in August to start distance learning,” Charbonneau said in an email to Target 12. “Given the constant, repetitive, and unfounded accusations coming from the state that somehow we aren’t providing for our students or in some form not ‘working hard enough,’ we didn’t see a meeting under that barrage as originating from a shared understanding, and so we declined.”
Pawtucket was one of several districts that initially voted to do almost entirely distance learning even before Raimondo announced a statewide school reopening decision on Aug. 31. But the others — Cumberland and Warwick — started transitioning to hybrid learning earlier this month.
Other districts have a wide range of reopening plans, but even the two districts that were told they could only do a “partial” reopening — Providence and Central Falls — have more grade levels in school than Pawtucket, which RIDE said should do a full reopening.
Excluding those who opted for virtual learning, Providence has elementary students in school five days a week and middle and high school grades alternating between in-person and distance learning. In Central Falls, pre-K through 4th grade is in school in person on an alternating schedule, according to Superintendent Stephanie Downey-Toledo, while middle and high schoolers are doing distance learning as the district seeks to hire more nurses.
Charbonneau pointed to a 61-slide presentation from last week’s Pawtucket School Committee meeting that details the physical issues with the school buildings, from windows that don’t open far enough to fit a box fan to poor electrical capacity and a lack of space to physically distance. (Charbonneau said the School Committee meeting over Zoom was not recorded, so video of the discussion was not available.)
The presentation cites the state’s own walkthrough reports conducted in August that detailed the lack of air turnover in the buildings, one of the guidelines for a school to be open.
For example, at Baldwin Elementary, a handwritten note in the report says “only the section with the HVAC gets sufficient clean air.”
At Shea High School, inspectors wrote, the “electrical system can’t support fan in each room.”
In an interview Monday, Dr. Roldán said many districts had the same issues and were able to figure out ways to reopen safely.
“There are dozens upon dozens of buildings across the state of Rhode Island that faced similar conditions to the buildings that are located in Pawtucket,” Roldán said. “We have worked individually with every single one of those districts to create plans.”
He said he did finally meet with McWilliams last week following the governor’s latest comments, and she said she would bring his offer to help back to school officials.
“We are ready and willing and able, whenever Pawtucket decides that they actually want some assistance, to provide it in a very direct manner,” he added.
He sent another email to McWilliams Monday afternoon saying Arden Engineering “stands ready” to assist with the building, and said RIDE had approved some of the district’s recent funding requests. But he questioned why no funding had been requested by the district for HEPA filters or air purifiers for the 11 school buildings that are not yet open.
He suggested McWilliams submit an application to RIDE for 434 HEPA filters, costing roughly $220,000.
Grebien was not available for an interview Monday about the tensions between his city and the state, but his spokesperson said the mayor is in contact with both sides about their “aligned goals.”
“It’s unfortunate and unproductive using the bully pulpit as an option to get to the shared and common goals,” spokesperson Wilder Arboleda said in an email. “Mayor Grebien has all the confidence that the Superintendent and School Committee continue to submit options and will work closely with RIDE in everyone’s best interest to get our students back in safely and as soon as possible.”
The Department of Health says 10 students and staff members in Pawtucket’s four in-person schools have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Friday.
Asked about Charbonneau’s comments, Roldán denied that RIDE had targeted Pawtucket for voting to do distance learning before the state announced that schools would reopen.
“We’re not in the business of targeting anyone,” he said. “We’re in the business of providing support and providing resources necessary to do what is right for children in the state of Rhode Island.”