PROVIDENCE — The nation’s top infectious disease specialist said Rhode Island is “starting from a very good place” as the Ocean State determines how to reopen schools safely.
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, praised Rhode Island’s response to the coronavirus pandemic during a Facebook Live discussion with Governor Gina M. Raimondo on Thursday.
The work Rhode Island has done — mandating masks and social distancing in public places, closing bars at 11 p.m., restricting gatherings — has brought the infection rate down enough for the state to find ways to reopen the schools, Fauci said.
Rhode Island is one of the “green states,” he said, meaning the positivity rate is below 5 percent. “That’s because of a lot of the things you’ve done correctly,” Fauci said. “If you have in place — and the governor has clearly made it a goal to have in place — the ability to identify, isolate, contact trace, get testing, surveillance, you should be able to open up safely.”
However, on Wednesday, Raimondo announced she was postponing the start of the school year to Sept. 14, after recommendations from the state departments of Health and Education to give school districts more time to develop plans and to shore up increased testing and faster turnarounds.
The plans, so far, have been varied. The Warwick School Committee voted Tuesday to have remote-only instruction, citing problems with ventilation in buildings that would prohibit in-person learning. Raimondo was dismayed by Warwick’s decision and accused them of “throwing in the towel” during her news conference on Wednesday.
The Facebook Live discussion with Fauci on Thursday was the latest in her weekly series to talk about how to reopen schools — and address anxiety and fears of families and teachers about whether classes can resume safely. “People say to me, why don’t you leave kids at home?” Raimondo said to him.
Fauci said that in-person instruction should be the default position, if the states are capable and their infection rates are low.
“There are ripple effects that don’t appear to be obvious,” Fauci said.
There’s the psychological impact of separating children from their normal interactions with their peers, and the loss of school meals for those who need them, Fauci said. There’s the loss of teachers watching out for students, who may be suffering from abuse at home, he said.
And, Fauci said, “There’s a ripple effect on parents who have to interrupt work, which has a negative effect on the economy,” he said. “We’re trying to safely, prudently open up the country and get the economy back to a healthy level.”
The primary concern has to be the safety, health, and welfare of children and teachers and their families, Fauci said.
“Now, there will always be cases,” he said. “The question is, how to prevent those blips of cases from becoming something that obviates the whole program. And that’s the thing you’re preparing for, that you should be able to do. You’re starting from a very good place.”
The same general principles for avoiding infection apply in schools — wearing masks, social distancing, avoiding congregating, being outdoors whenever possible or keeping windows open. The state will have to have plans to mitigate infections and be able to respond quickly if someone is infected.
“You are in a state where chances of getting infection are low,” Fauci said. “It’s never completely risk-free, but for goodness’ sake, we are living in a historic pandemic. We’ve never had anything like this, so it’s a challenge. You can’t interrupt your life indefinitely. You have to safely get back to normal.”
While Rhode Island is “green,” the cities of Providence, Central Falls, and Pawtucket are not. The governor said they are recommending virtual learning for older students in areas of higher rates of infection, and in-person instruction for younger students.
“You’ve all done a really good job, keep it up,” Fauci said. “This will end for sure, and it will end with a combination of maintaining the public health principles together with my cautious optimism for a vaccine beginning of next year.”
His prediction: “We’re going to be a year from now celebrating how we got through this together.”