PROVIDENCE — Governor Gina M. Raimondo announced Monday that all but two public school districts have the “green light” to open Sept. 14 for full in-person learning.
“It is our expectation and hope that is what you will do,” she added.
Though Sept. 14 is the first day of school, Raimondo said schools can “ease into” the full reopening during the first four weeks. Students will be required to wear masks and will not be allowed to attend if they are sick.
Providence, the state’s largest school district, and Central Falls are the two districts that cannot fully reopen because both cities have new weekly coronavirus positive test rates of at least 100 per 100,000 residents.
Providence school officials announced Monday that about 8,500 of its 24,000 students will attend school in-person on Sept. 14, with the rest participating in an all-distance-learning model or a hybrid of in-person and distance learning until at least Oct. 13.
They will face new procedures for most of the basics in school life — from how they get to school to how they travel through the halls.
“By Oct. 13, we want children in school for in-person learning,” Raimondo said, adding “if that’s what parents want.”
Raimondo and education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green had asked school districts for plans for three different scenarios: in-person learning, remote learning, or a hybrid of both.
Then, Raimondo, Infante-Green, and health director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott made the decision on reopening plans based on five key metrics: statewide virus data, municipal trends, testing capability, a district’s ability to acquire necessary cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment, and the operational readiness of each school.
Raimondo said the five metrics had been met for nearly all of the districts.
- Rhode Island has been “comfortably” in its Phase 3 reopening plan since June 30. Fewer than 10 percent of the COVID-19 hospital beds are filled, new hospitalizations are stable, and the rate of spread is about 1, Raimondo said.
- Testing readiness with results within 48 to 72 hours: The average turnaround last week was 1.8 days, with more than 45,000 tests completed in the last seven days, and the percent-positive rate was below 1 percent on several days, Raimondo said. Schools will have a separate testing system, with more than a dozen swab test sites throughout the state and 10 rapid-testing sites for students or staff who become ill at school, she said.
- Supplies: Raimondo said the schools have adequate supplies, and the state has provided backup: 3,000 thermometers, 600,000 masks, 5,000 gowns, and 15,000 containers of disinfectant. Last week, the state opened an education operations center to aid districts in case of any shortages.
- Operational readiness: The state Department of Health and Department of Education vetted all the school plans, which include having a point person for testing and contact tracing at every school, and protocol for responding when someone tests positive.
- Lower COVID-19 rates in municipalities: Cities and towns cannot have more than 100 new cases per 100,000 residents in a week.
State officials will continue watching Providence and Central Falls and determine in a month whether the rates of percent-positive cases have dropped enough to allow full in-person learning, Raimondo said.
She said the state will have teams doing “walkthroughs” to check all 306 school buildings for safety and ventilation before the start of school, and will audit the facilities during the year.
“If our team goes in there and does the walkthrough and it’s not up to snuff . . . then we will not allow that school building to reopen,” Raimondo said. “The facility will remain closed, and children can learn in another building or distance [learn] until we bring it up to code.”
Any private school that wishes to reopen for full in-person learning is also clear to do so, Raimondo said. These schools will also receive the same testing and contact tracing.
Rhode Island is up to 21,949 positive tests so far this year, with 266 new cases since Friday and 46 overnight, according to data from the state Department of Health published Monday. Two more people have died from COVID-19, bringing the death toll to 1,048. There are 77 people hospitalized, with nine in intensive care units, and five on ventilators.
Both Raimondo and Infante-Green have long said that they prefer in-person learning, but not everyone is convinced. Eight superintendents sent a letter last week saying they will also choose distance learning if their concerns about building safety aren’t addressed.
“We’re testing more than any state in the country. We’ve dealt successfully with outbreaks. So we’re going to give this a try, and like everything we’ve done together over the past six months, if it doesn’t work, we’ll adjust,” Raimondo said. “If we have problems, we’ll deal with it, but we owe it to our children to get them back into school.”