PROVIDENCE -- Rhode Island will keep school buildings closed and students will continue with distance learning at home for the rest of this academic year because of the coronavirus, Governor Gina M. Raimondo announced Thursday.
“To be honest, I had hoped to wind up in a different place,” Raimondo said. “I wanted to give these kids a chance to end their school year in a traditional setting.”
But the data doesn’t support that, she said, noting the number of COVID-19 cases in Rhode Island continues to rise and the state does not appear to have reached the peak of the outbreak.
“To take that much risk for a few weeks of traditional school would be irresponsible and the wrong decision for all the people of Rhode Island,” Raimondo said. “It’s just not the right thing.”
Meanwhile, another eight Rhode Islanders succumbed to the disease, bringing the state death toll to 189, and there were 412 new cases reported in the previous 24 hours. That means that 6,256 residents have tested positive for COVID-19, the respiratory illness cause by the virus.
Raimondo said that before she made her decision about the schools, she consulted public health officials, school superintendents, mayors, teachers, and parent groups.
“I’ve been listening as much as I can,” she said. “And the consensus recommendation is that we have to do distance learning for the rest of the year.”
She said 39 other governors have already decided to keep school buildings closed for the rest of this academic year -- even in places such as Georgia and Texas that are taking steps to reopen their economies.
“I am confident it is the right decision, although it’s not an easy one," Raimondo said. "Now we need to get to work at making the best of it.”
She said her message to students is: “Buckle down and don’t slack off. You will be bummed, I know that. That’s natural. But wake back up tomorrow and let’s get at it."
She had a specific message for the Class of 2020: “This is a bummer. I’m sorry. This was your senior year spring, you were going to be captain of your sports team, you were going to go to your prom, you were going to hang out with your friends, spring flings.”
But traditional proms and in-person graduations are not going to be possible this spring, she said.
However, the state will find other ways to recognize accomplishments and celebrate graduations, she said, education officials will provide guidance to school districts soon. Also, the state will partner with Rhode Island PBS to host a “statewide television graduation special" for the Class of 2020 in June, she said.
Raimondo acknowledged that distance learning is not easy.
"I know that as a mother, as a governor,” she said. “It is taking a toll on parents. Our kids are having a hard time not seeing their friends. I know you guys wish you could be playing sports.”
Distance learning has been “particularly challenging for those with differing abilities,” she said. “And it’s frankly stressful for teachers who are working more and harder in many cases than with traditional classroom learning. It’s hard, and I don’t deny that.”
But Raimondo said Rhode Islanders have done well with distance learning and are “among the best in America at it.” She said participation rates are above 90 percent in the state.
“I’m proud of you. By every measure you are doing an amazing job at it," Raimondo said. “Let’s finish this year strong.”
Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green said participation levels are high and the education community has risen to the challenge of distance learning.
“Rhode Island is a model for the nation on many fronts now, including on education. Who would have said that two months ago?” she said. “We have not given up on education, and we continue to move forward and innovate.”
Infante-Green delivered her message at Thursday’s news conference in both English and Spanish.
The number of coronavirus cases continues to climb. “We are stable, but still haven’t turned the corner, and today is an uptick," Raimondo said. "Hang in there. Continue to stay at home, continue to do social distancing. We are not out of the woods.”
Rhode Island now has 267 people hospitalized with the COVID-19 respiratory illness, 72 are in intensive care units, and 45 are on ventilators, the Department of Health reported.
Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the Department of Health, said the eight new fatalities include four people in their 60s, two in their 70s, one in their 80s, and one in their 90s.
Four of those people lived in nursing homes, and the health department will begin posting infection data about specific nursing homes on its website Thursday afternoon.
Raimondo said $625 million of federal stimulus funding has arrived in the state, and on Wednesday night the US Treasury Department provided some guidance on how the money can be used.
“We are going to follow all the rules the federal government puts out and we are committed to total transparency and accountability," she said. “We are going to need every penny of it.”
Raimondo said active people in their 60s were upset about her comments a day earlier, when she said that “re-entry” will be slower for older residents when the economy reopens.
“The first phone call I got was from my brother, who reminded me he hasn’t taken a day off in six weeks -- he’s a physician,” she said.
Raimondo said she was trying to emphasize that the virus can pose a greater threat to older residents with underlying conditions.
“I’m sorry if I created confusion,” she said. “In no way ever we will do anything to be discriminatory or to reduce your chances of keeping a job or getting a job. It’s just a way to say we want everybody to be safe.”
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org