PROVIDENCE — As public school teachers across Rhode Island began their first day of school in professional development on Wednesday, the state Department of Health continued to report a steady level of new cases of coronavirus.
Governor Gina M. Raimondo has given the “green light” to nearly all of the public school districts to return to full in-person learning starting on Monday. The governor is giving the schools four weeks to ramp up that process.
Central Falls and Providence weren’t cleared for full in-person learning because their cases were 100 or higher per 100,000. However, both cities are lately showing major improvements, Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said Wednesday.
Just last week, the rate of cases has fallen to 31 per 100,000 people in Central Falls, and 91 cases per 100,000 in Providence, she said. The potential for in-person learning in those cities will be reassessed in a month, she said.
Meanwhile, the new school year means face masks are now considered a back-to-school item, and students and school staff will be required to stay home when they’re sick, even if they believe their symptoms are caused by allergies, under a “better safe than sorry" approach.
School will look different, but everything looks different now, Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green said.
“We’re in a new place, and what I’m going to ask all of you is to work together,” she said.
The state is expected to conclude their walk-throughs of public school buildings by the end of Wednesday. Some schools haven’t yet passed their inspection, but Raimondo said she was hopeful they would be ready by Monday.
On the first day of school, the state will have at least 12 testing sites set up around Rhode Island, solely dedicated to public schools, capable of conducting 5,000 tests a day, Raimondo said. Anyone who becomes sick while at school will also be able to obtain a rapid test, she said.
Raimondo had already delayed the start of school by two weeks, to Sept. 14, after school and health officials said they weren’t ready.
The state’s largest teachers' union is raising concerns about the readiness of school districts to reopen.
In a Twitter thread Wednesday, National Education Association Rhode Island urged a delay, starting with this: “Some districts are ready. Many need more time. [Teachers] in multiple districts reporting PPE & supplies have been ordered but are weeks away from arriving. Support professionals have not been fully trained in safe donning and doffing of PPE."
Some districts are ready. Many need more time. Ts in multiple districts reporting PPE & supplies have been ordered but are weeks away from arriving. Support professionals have not been fully trained in safe donning and doffing of PPE. Why not DL until it's safe? #OnlyWhenItsSafe— NEARI (@NEARhodeIsland) September 9, 2020
On Tuesday, the Providence Teachers Union set up a mock elementary classroom outside the State House in a demonstration to show there won’t be enough social distancing with 30 students in a classroom.
Rhode Island had 5,185 people tested on Tuesday, with a 1 percent positive rate of tests. There are 54 new COVID-19 cases, with a total of 22,676 positive tests this year. Three more people have died from complications associated with the virus, raising the death toll to 1,062. There are 82 people hospitalized, with four in intensive care, and three on ventilators.
“We still need to remain vigilant, but the numbers are encouraging,” Alexander-Scott said.
Rhode Island’s health data are now below the threshold set by the state of Massachusetts, which sets restrictions on states where the average daily cases per 100,000 residents is above six and the positive rate is above 5 percent.
Alexander-Scott said that health officials were in discussions with Massachusetts officials about Rhode Island’s status. A spokesperson for the Massachusetts Command Center said the state reviews the data and weekly trends and will update the higher risk state list as needed.
Rhode Island has seen connections with positive cases from social gatherings.
During the week of Aug. 26 through Sept. 1, there were 40 people testing positive after attending social gatherings, and 53 percent had worked while having symptoms, Alexander-Scott said. Those who carpooled also infected others – almost all of the people who rode with them also tested positive, she said.
Raimondo urged Rhode Islanders to get the flu shot to make sure emergency rooms aren’t over-run when the flu season arrives. “The combination of the COVID virus with the flu could cause real problems this winter,” the governor said.
State inspectors were out over the Labor Day holiday weekend and largely found that businesses, restaurants and bars were complying with coronavirus restrictions, Raimondo said.
Out of 700 businesses visited by state inspectors, 96 percent of employees and 93 percent of customers were wearing masks, she said.
More than 94 percent of restaurants and bars had customers separated from bartenders, 93 percent made sure there was no mingling at bars, and 99 percent closed their bars at 11 p.m., she said. Eighty-five percent of businesses were also conducting health screening at their entrances, she said.
The state has an incentive for people using the CrushCovid app – report your daily health and be entered to win a stay at a Providence hotel.
While much of the focus over the last several weeks has been on young people, the Department of Health has slightly relaxed its restrictions on the very old.
Two months ago, the state said that nursing homes could allow visits again – but had to close whenever there were new cases.
In reality, that’s meant that visitation has been all but impossible at some nursing homes. So, Raimondo said, the Department of Health has issued new guidance to all of the nursing homes to allow visits to continue for residents who don’t have symptoms and who aren’t effected by the infection.
“The bottom line is a single positive case is no longer a reason to completely halt visitation,” Raimondo said. “The Department of Health reiterated that nursing homes and assisted living [facilities] need to make every reasonable effort to make sure offering in-person visiting. They must make visitation possible on a regular daily basis.”