PROVIDENCE — Governor Gina M. Raimondo on Thursday suggested that distance learning, which has replaced in-school education during the pandemic, could be used during future snowstorms instead of canceling school.
“Maybe it’s the end of the snow day,” she said in response to questions during her daily coronavirus briefing.
But Raimondo said she believes that it will be possible to reopen Rhode Island school buildings in the fall.
“I want to open school,” she said. “Kids deserve school."
The governor said discussions are under way with superintendents, principals, teachers, and parents, and she plans to make announcements next week about what the future might look like for the state’s public schools.
“It is my strong desire to get these kids back to school,” she said. “Obviously, we have to do is safely and responsibly and with great detail.”
Raimondo said the pandemic has forced society to more fully embrace innovations — such as tele-medicine and distance learning — that are worth keeping around after the health crisis ends.
“I am not suggesting we want to be permanently and forever exclusively distance learning,” she said.
But in the future, schools will have to be very strict about not letting students come to school if they are sick, and distance learning will help those students continue learning from home, she said.
Likewise, Raimondo said, “Kids forever have missed school for snow days. Well, they’ve been distance learning for two months. Why don’t we just pop to distance learning?”
Rhode Island already has a law on the books that allows up to three days of virtual learning per year, but no district has taken advantage of it because the regulatory process is so involved.
Raimondo dedicated much of Thursday’s news conference to talking about ways to rebuilding the state’s health care system in the wake of the damage done by the pandemic.
She addressed the topic in the wake of the announcement that the leaders of Lifespan and Care New England are renewing their attempt to forge a new academic health center that would include Brown University.
Last summer, Care New England pulled out of negotiations with Lifespan and Brown University, marking a defeat for Raimondo, who had said that Massachusetts-based Partners Healthcare would back off its attempt to acquire Care New England to clear the way for local partnership.
When asked about the renewed effort on Thursday, Raimondo said, “I am supporting their efforts.”
While she led the attempt last summer, she said the leaders of the hospital groups are taking the lead this time around. “I have to give them a lot of credit," she said, "and I have said to them, ‘Let me know how I can support the effort.’ ”
The details of any new proposal remain unknown, Raimondo said. But the concept is to create “better integration, better communication, less fragmentation, investments in community care — and I will add a commitment to the work force," she said. "I think that’s very important.”
Raimondo said the state will channel $150 million in federal stimulus money to hospitals in Rhode Island to help them offset immediate costs and prepare for the future. Hospitals stopped doing elective surgeries and other procedures when the pandemic hit, resulting in “massive drops in their revenue,” she noted.
“So we need to be there for them,” Raimondo said. “And they need to be there for their front-line workers.”
Also, the governor said she would be signing an executive order to ensure that the state has a long-term health care plan “focused on improving health for all Rhode Islanders.” She thanked the Rhode Island Foundation for bringing together a group to work on the state’s health care vision and providing $1 million, including grants, aimed at addressing health care disparities and supporting preventative health.
Raimondo said she is “very concerned” that the state has seen childhood immunizations drop by more than 35 percent during the pandemic. She urged parents to immediately schedule appointments to immunize their children if they have been holding off because of the outbreak.
“That is a disaster waiting to happen," Raimondo said. “If we don’t fix that, next winter we could see potentially devastating health care issues.”
Raimondo said she will extend an executive order through July 5 that requires health insurers to cover telephone or video conferencing health care at the same rates as in-person health care.
And she said she will extend an executive order through July 4 requiring people to wear cloth facing coverings while in public if they cannot easily remain six feet apart.
On Thursday, the state Department of Health announced that another 14 Rhode Islanders have died from the coronavirus, bringing the state death toll to 756.
“We did lose 14 more of us,” said Dr. James McDonald, medical director for the Department of Health. “It’s hard to see that. The virus is a thief. It steals our life. It steals our health. It steals our joy. The virus has stolen a lot from us.”
Also, another 100 residents have tested positive for the virus, bringing the total number of positive tests to 15,325, the Department of Health reported.
The state now has 185 people hospitalized with COVID-19, 42 in intensive care, and 29 on ventilators, while 1,326 have been discharged from the hospital.
Also on Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island announced that state Department of Labor and Training has agreed to notify thousands of people who were surprised to find their unemployment insurance benefit payments frozen as part of a fraud investigation.
The ACLU filed a lawsuit last week, arguing that the DLT’s failure to provide those people with notice violated their constitutional right to due process.
The agreement, reached at a hearing before U.S. District Court Judge William E. Smith, calls for the state to send email notices by Friday and to provide a phone number they can call to resolve the issue. For those without email, the state committed to providing notice by mail, text, or phone.
And the Department of Labor and Training agreed to double, from 10 to 20, the number of staff members dedicated to communicating with people whose unemployment insurance benefits payments have been put on hold due to the fraud investigation, according to the ACLU.
“We are pleased to see the DLT has responded to our concerns about the enormous problem facing individuals who have been left far too long in the dark as to why their benefit payments stopped," ACLU of Rhode Island cooperating attorney Lynette Labinger said.
Labinger said the agreement represents a good first step. “But we will continue to advocate for recipients to make sure that the communications are prompt, meaningful, and effective, and that this problem gets a long-lasting solution,” she said.
The Department of Labor and Training issued a statement, saying it is working to get an unprecedented number of Rhode Islanders unemployment benefits during the pandemic.
“We are also striving to protect the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund from bad actors looking to take advantage of a crisis,” DLT said. “We remain committed to both of these goals, and are continuously improving our systems and processes in order to better serve the people of Rhode Island.”
Meanwhile, a new drive-up and walk-up COVID-19 testing site will open on Monday at 393 Broad St., in Providence, according to an announcement by Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza, Raimondo, Open Door Health and Southside Cultural Center of Rhode Island.
In addition, they said CVS Health is launching two new drive-through test sites in Providence.