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It’s official: Opening of public schools pushed back to Sept. 14

Governor says delay will allow districts to open safely with confidence

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PROVIDENCE — At her regular weekly press conference today, Gov. Gina Raimondo confirmed what she had already hinted at during media interviews earlier this week: The opening day for Rhode Island public schools has been pushed back to Monday, Sept. 14.

Schools were originally expected to open Aug. 31 following a statewide calendar, but the governor said she decided to delay the first day by two weeks upon the recommendation of the R.I. Department of Education and the R.I. Department of Health.

“We’re doing this because it gives schools a little more time to be ready,” said Gov. Raimondo, noting the extra time will allow districts to ensure they have enough personal protective equipment (PPE) and masks, that their buildings have the proper air flow, that the requirments of special needs students are met, that stable groups are established for all grades, and that questions around transportation are adequately addressed.

In addition, she wants to make sure that testing — “This is absolutely key to the puzzle,” the governor said — can be completed faster than it is now. “We’re not there yet” where people can get text results with 48 to 72 hours, she said. 

The state also wants to make sure there is adequate rapid testing in all the schools, but there has been progress on that front, she said.

“We’ve already secured eight rapid testing machines to process rapid testing for schools,” she said, noting that on Tuesday, Rhode Island joined a 10-state collaborative to procure rapid test kits. 

Decision on model coming Aug. 31

What model a particular district will use when they start school on Sept. 14 — in-person or distance learning — will depend on whether that district checks off five metrics the state has already set to ensure a safe opening, the governor said.

For example, she said, if the first day of school was today, Central Falls, Pawtucket and Providence would not be allowed to open their buildings to students. However, she said those districts probably will be ready by Sept. 14.

Although the governor originally said she would decide by Aug. 16 on whether schools will open in person, partially in person or use distance learning, she’s pushed that back to Aug. 31 — a decision she knows won’t be popular. 

“You know how we’re going to decide whether we’re fully in person, fully virtual or somewhere in the middle. Everything depends on the date (and) the prevalence of the disease in the state and your community,” as well as testing, she said. “I can’t make a decision (by Aug. 16) what the prevalence of the disease will be like for Sept. 14. It wouldn’t be right, it wouldn’t be accurate.” 

Three days for teachers

Although the first day of school for students will now be Sept. 14, there will be three professional development days set aside for teachers from Sept. 9 to 11, she said. Those days will be used so educators can focus “on how to educate children in the midst of this Coronavirus.”

The last day of school is now set for June 25, so students will have at least 177 days of school, she said. 

One of the biggest operational challenges for school districts will be transportation, the governor said. Most students use crowded buses and they don’t always sit still, she said. 

“We have to have fewer children on the bus, the windows have to be open, and the kids will have to have their masks on,” she said.

Some districts have already come up with “creative” ways to get their kids to school so fewer have to take the bus, including walking, biking, car-pooling, staggered start times and more.

‘Not Rhode Island’

The governor tried to quell the anxieties of some parents who have seen images of crowded hallways in schools that have already opened elsewhere in the country.

“People ask me, ‘But governor, have you seen those pictures of those schools in Georgia in the days and weeks of the opening?’ Yes, of course I’ve seen those,” she said. “That’s not Rhode Island. We’re in a much better place in Rhode Island. That to me is a cautionary tale. We’re not going to open schools until they’re safe. I know as a parent, all you want to do is do right by your kids.”

The right thing is to work “24/7” to get students back in school, she said.

“Kids learn better in school,” said Gov. Raimondo.

She and Angélica Infante-Green, Rhode Island’s education commissioner, however, said they respect parental choice.

“We’re been pretty clear about choice. Every family is different,” said Ms. Infante-Green, noting that some students like distance learning, while other kids do better in school. 

“For kids with IEPs, (distance learning) has been a struggle for them,” she said. “We know that kids benefit from being in school. Our job is making sure students are safe and the buildings are ready.”

Disappointed in Warwick

During the question-and-answer portion of the briefing, the governor was asked for her thoughts on the Warwick School Committee’s 4-1 vote Tuesday night to have students start the school year learning from home.

“They threw in the towel on those students … before they even tried,” said Gov. Raimondo, who called it a “terrible” decision.

“They didn’t even give us a plan for full in-person learning for the littlest children. C’mon — do your job and do better,” she said. “Those kids deserve better. I am so disappointed in that School Committee. I hope they rethink it.”

Social gatherings

Gov. Raimondo reminded residents, as she often does, that social gathering in Rhode Island is still limited to 15 people. 

“A lot of people still don’t know that,” she said. “And, it’s not a different 15 people every day. Write down a list of 15 people you will deal with, and stick to that 15.”

A month and a half ago, Rhode Island was leading the nation on its low prevalence of Covid cases, she said.

“We’re still in good shape … but we’re not where we need to be,” she said, noting that hospitalizations are “creeping up” and bar owners are struggling because she had to shut them down at 11 p.m.

The governor said she’s hearing more and more reports of street parties attended by 40 people, backyard get-togethers with 30 people, and no one wearing masks. Police have broken up some of those gatherings.

“If it happens again at those locations, everyone there will get a $500 fine,” the governor said. “We’re serious about this, folks. We’re at a real tipping point.”

She said there would be no lifting of any restrictions this week. “We’re keeping everything in effect until we see our numbers go down,” she said.

One question she frequently hears: Why are social gatherings restricted to 15 people, while you can have up to 30 children in a “pod” at school, and many more at a wedding or inside a restaurant?

Gov. Raimondo said in classrooms, where teachers use seating charts and students will wear masks, “is a relatively controlled environment,” and the same is true to some degree at a restaurant.

“Social gatherings is where we’re have trouble,” she said, adding that people are not social distancing or wearing masks. 

Another problem: Too many people are going to work when they’re sick. People should stay home when they’re sick, and that also goes for students, she said.

“The school culture needs to change. This year, schools probably shouldn’t have awards for perfect attendance.”

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