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Analysis

Raimondo’s school reopening plan buys districts more time to make the call on in-person learning

Rhode Island Education Commissioner Angélica M. Infante-Green at Governor Gina Raimondo's coronavirus update on Monday.Kris Craig/pool photo/The Providence Journal

PROVIDENCE – Remember in the fifth grade when you had your first big project, the one where your teacher gave you several weeks to read about a subject, write a report, and use your creative little brain to craft a brilliant display? Chances are it involved a Play-Doh version of Mount Vesuvius and a whole bunch of baking soda and vinegar.

If your teacher was experienced, there were probably a series a checkpoints along the way to make sure you were actually making progress. More gullible teachers might have handed out the assignment and set a firm deadline, which inevitably meant you (and your mother) were going to pull an all-nighter to start and finish the project just before showcase day.

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What Governor Gina Raimondo announced Monday was effectively an extension of the biggest project affecting students and parents in Rhode Island: the reopening of schools. She said districts have until Oct. 13 to start in-person learning -- the day after Columbus Day

But she made clear her plan is flexible. The districts that are ready to go can open with in-person learning on Sept. 14, but the more apprehensive superintendents – and there are plenty – have an extra month to gradually allow students to move from distance learning to in-person learning.

“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 during a press conference on Monday. “If we have problems, we’ll deal with it, but we owe it to our children to get them back into school.”

Raimondo has been clear for weeks that she believes schools should reopen to all students as soon as possible for two key reasons: 1. We don’t know this for sure, but it’s reasonable to assume that in-person learning is more effective than distance learning. 2. She wants Rhode Island’s economy to continue reopening, and that’s nearly impossible if parents have to stay home with their children all day.

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But by not issuing a mandatory order that all schools immediately reopen on Sept. 14, Raimondo is taking a similar approach to the one your teacher took for that fifth grade volcano creation.

Rather than simply setting a deadline, she is setting checkpoints.

It’s clear now why she announced that every school district needed to craft multiple reopening plans by July, and it’s the reason she was willing to take districts to task if they didn’t take those plans seriously (Hey Warwick, that’s you). And while every district except Providence and Central Falls has the clearance to reopen, she is giving superintendents the flexibility that professionals deserve.

To be sure, the consequences of a flawed school reopening in a pandemic are more dire than getting a bad grade on an elementary school project.

But setting clear expectations and offering guidance – and most importantly, money – along the way makes it far less likely that any district will be caught flatfooted and be unprepared once it’s time to welcome all students back. That’s especially true when you consider that schools need to prepare for new outbreaks.

“We know children will test positive, we know people who work in the schools will test positive – every school has an adequate plan in the event someone tests positive,” Raimondo said.

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Of course, that doesn’t mean Raimondo and Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green have gotten everything right.

Monday’s announcement was confusing because they said most schools are ready to reopen on Sept. 14 before quickly pivoting to note that Oct. 13 is the real date to watch. They said Providence isn’t ready to fully reopen, and then the district quickly announced that more than 8,000 students, roughly a third of the district, are expected back in class on Sept. 14. (But that still left the majority of students likely to experience some combination of in person and remote learning for days, if not weeks, to come.)

Robert Walsh, the executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island, has been actively urging Raimondo to pump the brakes on school reopening for several weeks, noting that his members have deep concerns about the ventilation systems in some of their schools. He’s also questioned whether some plans are realistic. For example, while students are expected to remain in stable groups, he said that won’t be possible for special needs teachers or physical education teachers who work with multiple groups.

“We have more questions than answers,” Walsh said following Monday’s press conference.

It’s also unclear the state has the authority to force schools to reopen by Oct. 13, or if the state is just going to strongly encourage it. Raimondo said she was unlikely to establish a mandate, but she warned that parents could sue districts to reopen. (In theory, it’s possible teachers and parents could sue districts to prevent an unsafe reopening, too.)

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In school systems where reopening decisions have already been made, officials are rethinking their plans, too. The Cumberland School Committee voted last week to start the school year with distance learning, but Chairman Paul DiModica said Monday that he wants the committee to reverse course following Raimondo’s announcement.

“Cumberland will know what we’ve got to do, and we’ll come up with a plan,” DiModica said.

It’s too soon to say whether every student will be back in a classroom by Oct. 13, and the coronavirus has repeatedly proved that it has the power to disrupt even the most noble intentions. But Monday’s announcement does put districts on notice and forces leaders to stay focused on the needs of students.

And hopefully Mount Vesuvius doesn’t erupt in the meantime.


Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.