PROVIDENCE -- Rhode Island public school buildings will remain closed for all of April, and students will continue with distance learning from home, Governor Gina M. Raimondo announced Monday.
The announcement came as Raimondo reported the state’s fourth death from COVID-19 -- a man in his 70s -- and 114 new cases.
That marked the largest single-day increase in the number of coronavirus cases in Rhode Island, bringing the total to 408. She said 41 people are now hospitalized with COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new virus.
“We are in a fast spread of the virus at this point in Rhode Island,” Raimondo said. “Right now, it is more important than ever that we really stay clamped down and obey social distancing rules, hand washing rules.”
Raimondo said she is “thrilled” that distance learning in public schools has gone better than expected since it began a week ago.
But, she said, “I’m not going to sugarcoat this. There is nothing easy about this. It’s difficult, it’s disruptive, it’s particularly difficult for the most vulnerable. But as I said when I made the decision, some learning is better than no learning. I’m not throwing in the towel on 142,000 kids."
Raimondo said some have asked why she does not make an announcement about what will happen for a longer period of time. “I am taking an incremental, day-by-day, week-by-week approach with this whole crisis,” she said.
If distance learning goes as well in April as it has over the past week, she said, “I very likely will say, ‘We are going to do it again for the month of May.’ ”
Raimondo reiterated the goal of ramping up testing for the coronavirus in Rhode Island so that the state is conducting 1,000 tests per day by later this week. Rhode Island is now halfway there, and it is setting up drive-through testing sites at the University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College, and the Community of College of Rhode Island.
The governor emphasized that residents cannot show up at the testing sites without an appointment; they must call their doctors first. She urged people to stay home if they are sick.
When asked if neighbors near those sites should be concerned, Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the state Department of Health, said people are staying in their cars while being tested by medical personnel wearing protective equipment.
“We have a very safe protocol,” she said. “It’s a very well-run and safe process.”
When asked about nurses being told to use face masks for multiple days, Alexander-Scott said state officials are trying to provide health care workers with as many masks and other personal protective equipment as possible. But she noted that such equipment has been in short supply, and Rhode Island is competing with other states and countries trying to buy the same equipment.
Alexander-Scott said the man in his 70s who became the state’s fourth victim was not a nursing home resident. Health officials are looking at whether underlying health conditions contributed to his death.
Nursing homes are places of concern because a lot of vulnerable people are in one place, Alexander-Scott said. Rhode Island has had a total 15 cases of the coronavirus in three different nursing homes.
The state is taking additional steps to safeguard the nursing home population by, for example, looking at whether it’s safe for patients to be discharged from hospitals to nursing homes, she said. And she emphasized the need to clean high-touch surfaces in nursing homes and other health care facilities -- ideally every four hours.
“We are at a very critical stage right now,” Alexander-Scott said. “You are seeing what the numbers are. We can’t have just 50 percent following the stay-at-home order. We need 100 percent.”
Also on Monday, House and Senate Republicans called for Raimondo, a Democrat, and the General Assembly’s Democratic leaders to allow the full legislature to meet either through teleconferencing or at a large venue such as the Dunkin’ Donuts Center.
The Assembly has an obligation to pass a balanced budget, craft emergency relief measures, and adjust election laws, and it serves as a check on the governor’s powers under a state of emergency, the Republican legislators said in a letter.
“These critical aspects of the people’s business must go on so long as the Rhode Island General Assembly can safely convene,” the Republican legislators said. “We are gravely concerned by the recent comments from legislative leadership indicating that legislative sessions may not recommence until January 2021. This is unacceptable if the General Assembly can safely meet. Thankfully, the General Assembly is able to safely convene for limited business.”
In responding to questions from reporters, Raimondo said having the General Assembly meet in person now is "a terrible idea” -- no matter how large the building is. She encouraged government bodies to do business via video conference or phone call.
Meanwhile, in other developments:
- Alexander-Scott said Rhode Island had more than 200 ventilators before the outbreak, but is working toward having 600 ventilators available.
- Raimondo announced that hot spots for smart phones will be provided free of charge through May 13 to ensure that all Rhode Island students have access to WiFi necessary for distance learning at home.
- She said she, Alexander-Scott, and State Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green will hold a press conference just for school children on Thursday.
- Earlier on Monday, Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza announced the city will waive penalties and interest on property taxes through June 30. He said the city has also instituted a temporary hiring freeze, but he vowed to not order furloughs or layoffs of city employees over the next several months.
- The state Division of Motor Vehicles announced that it will implement a 90-day grace period for driver’s licenses, permits, identification cards, and vehicle registrations due to expire in March and April.
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at email@example.com