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E.P. admins, union execs react to school opening delay

Bargaining units urge continued use of virtual learning


EAST BAY — While saying they agreed with Governor Gina Raimondo’s expected decision to delay the beginning of schools by two weeks, the top union representatives of Rhode Island’s education personnel expressed their belief virtual learning should be the starting point for instruction in the 2020-21 term.

In a Zoom press conference held Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 11, shortly after the governor inferred of her plans during a taped television interview, members of the National Education Association Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals offered their perspective on the situation, all calling for distance learning to continue for the near term at least.

In the interview, the governor intimated she would postpone the start of classes from August 31 to September 14. She was expected to make her decision formal during her weekly press conference slated for Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 12. Teachers will return to buildings on Wednesday, Sept. 9, and continue the rest of that week for professional development in preparation for those students opting to attend in person to report.

“It’s becoming obvious we need more time,” said NEARI President Larry Purtill. “We need to slow this down a bit…It’s the right call to delay the opening of schools, but we should start with virtual learning.”

Mr. Purtill continued, saying numerous unknowns remain about attempts to open schools with the COVID-19 pandemic still “raging” across the country and with the recent uptick in cases in the state.

He cited the recent uptick in positives cases reported in the state as well as questions about air quality and the health and safety of school buildings. He also wondered if the federal government was going allocate more money to states to meet the challenges districts face from the virus.

“We need to open schools in a manner that is safe for students and doing it virtually gives us another month or so to do it right,” Mr. Purtill added. “We want to do what’s best not only for our members but more importantly for our students and their families.”

Frank Flynn, President of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, said his membership is “pushing for distance learning” until infrastructure issues can be addressed.

He continued, “Our teachers want to be back in school, but this all about health and safety and no one I’ve spoken to thinks we can do that…We don’t have the adequate preparation, the adequate materials or resources to do that safely.”

Bob Walsh, Executive Director of the National Education Association Rhode Island, said schools should start with distance learning and continue until aspects around the situation either improve or are remedied.

When asked if the pandemic will impact ongoing and future contract negotiations, Mr. Walsh said, “This transcends collective bargaining.”

He continued, the reason for the press conference and a letter sent by the unions the same day to the governor and Rhode Island Department of Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green was because “it came to a point where we felt we were not being listened to.” He added the approach of the unions has and will continue to be based on “health and safety governed by science and medicine.”

A portion of the letter read as follows: “We applaud your collective early leadership in the coronavirus crisis and taking the necessary steps to ensure Rhode Islanders’ health and safety, but we fear that our voices are no longer being heard and our concerns are no longer being taken seriously. Both the National Education Association Rhode Island (NEARI) and the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals
(RIFTHP) have said repeatedly and unequivocally that the health and safety of students, teachers, and staff must be the top priority and the determining factors of science and medicine must govern reopening school buildings. Sadly, we have come to realize that our interpretations of health and safety differ from yours.”

The union executives as well touched upon the issue of transportation after the governor once again said she would consider using the Rhode Island National Guard to augment any shortages in buses. They said the issue is not just the amount of buses, but the recommended 30 minutes to clean the vehicles between trips as well as the health of the their drivers and monitors.

The execs also said starting school with distance learning would provide some immediate certainty to all parties, allowing for parents and teachers alike to plan their schedules.

“The answer to almost all of these questions is virtual learning,” Mr. Purtill said, adding, “There’s so many questions out there, we should start with virtual learning and then work are way back from there. It just makes sense.

“Let’s take our time here and to get it right to make children, their families and staff are safe…There are just too many unknowns at this point to risk going back to in-person learning.”

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