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The Great Divide

How Rhode Island brought most students back for in-person learning — and Massachusetts did not

Brendan Weissel Brandon played basketball in his driveway after the end of his school day. He  is in 11th grade in Newton and will be studying remotely for the foreseeable future.
Brendan Weissel Brandon played basketball in his driveway after the end of his school day. He is in 11th grade in Newton and will be studying remotely for the foreseeable future.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff


As public officials make the difficult decision of whether to reopen schools for in-person learning this month, the neighboring states of Massachusetts and Rhode Island share two important characteristics: They have some of the lowest per capita COVID-19 positivity rates in the country. And both state’s governors have consistently proclaimed that as many students as possible should return for in-person instruction this fall.

“We want to see kids get back to school,” Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker told reporters at the end of July. “All the evidence is that it can be done safely.”

Yet the results could not be more different.

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In Massachusetts, only about a dozen districts, most of them made up entirely of elementary schools, plan to return all students to classrooms full time this fall. Meanwhile, in Rhode Island, the vast majority of the state’s 66 districts and charter schools plan to offer full-time in-person learning by October. Providence and Central Falls have not been cleared by the state to reopen, and a few others, including Warwick Public Schools, have not made a final decision.

While the reasons for the stark difference are multifaceted, public policy analysts say a lot boils down to the divergent leadership styles of the two governors. Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo declared more than three months ago that schools would reopen this fall and devoted much of the summer to goading superintendents to ready buildings.

Baker has taken a far less aggressive approach. Massachusetts officials asked districts to prioritize in-person learning but said they lack the authority to mandate it. While Massachusetts' education commissioner and his team wrote hundreds of pages of guidance for reopening schools, many districts went ahead and made their decisions rather than wait for the state’s release of the metrics that communities could use to determine whether they could safely reopen in person.

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While Raimondo has embraced the role of education czar, Baker has shied away. And only time will tell who was more right.

“You could be a punching bag or a hero,” said Erin O’Brien, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston. But we won’t “know which until the end of the school year.”

In Rhode Island, a top-down approach to reopening

Since June, Raimondo has treated the effort to reopen schools like a political campaign: seeking media attention to promote her message, recruiting big-name supporters to endorse her approach, jabbing relentlessly at opponents.

Rhode Island superintendents spent most of June and July crafting plans for three different alternatives: a full in-person reopening, a hybrid model, and an all distance-learning option.

But in contrast to the approach in her neighbor state, Raimondo’s calls for in-person learning began in June and grew more vocal as the summer progressed.

She maintained that Rhode Island’s relatively low positivity rate meant that schools could reopen safely, although the law was murky as to whether she could mandate in-person learning. So she used her bully pulpit, including a weekly press conference that airs on every network television station in the state, to put heat on schools.

Raimondo stated repeatedly that she felt comfortable with her own children, who both attend private schools, being in class this fall. And in mid-August, she tapped Dr. Anthony Fauci to provide an additional boost of credibility for her case.

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During a Zoom meeting with Raimondo, Fauci said that “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.”

Raimondo persisted despite intense opposition from teachers unions. The union for the Bristol-Warren district asked a judge earlier this month to block schools from reopening, saying the state’s safety review wasn’t thorough enough. But the request was rejected.

Earlier this month, Raimondo announced that districts would be allowed to phase in a full in-person reopening until Oct. 13, when she wants all students pre-K through 12th grade learning in classrooms. Central Falls and Providence, where coronavirus caseloads have remained stubbornly high, are the only districts that haven’t been cleared for a full reopening. Providence is the largest district in Rhode Island, with about 16 percent of the state’s 145,000 students.

State officials have encouraged districts to keep students 6 feet away from each other as often as possible, but they’ve placed more emphasis on keeping the same groups of children together in “stable pods.” Superintendents say the pods are possible for younger students, but it becomes a scheduling challenge for high schools.

Although Raimondo has been pushing districts as hard as possible to reopen, Rhode Island parents still have the option of choosing online learning. In Providence slightly more than a quarter of students signed up for virtual learning.

“We feel that COVID-19 is more complicated and disruptive than the governor makes it seem,” said Hollybeth Runco, a Providence resident whose son is enrolled at The Learning Community charter school in Central Falls. The family will be doing virtual learning even when the school reopens for in-person instruction.

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Raimondo is more sympathetic to parents making such determinations than schools.

After the Warwick School Committee voted on Aug. 11 to begin the year with distance learning, Raimondo vowed to help parents with legal options if they wanted to sue the district.

“They just threw in the towel on those kids, and I think the children of Warwick deserve better,” Raimondo said at the time.

Warwick Superintendent Philip Thornton said the district is working to purchase 1,200 air purifiers that would allow him to reopen schools over the next several months, but even then, the plan will likely involve a mix of in-person and distance learning.

“I think it is unfortunate that we’re being threatened by officials, but we are doing the absolute best for our students and faculty,” Thornton said.

A more hands-off approach

In Massachusetts, officials have taken a far more low-key approach to pushing for in-person learning.

Baker has been intimately involved in the details of reopening, but Education Commissioner Jeff Riley has been the public face of the effort. Like Raimondo, Riley asked each district to plan for three scenarios: fully in person, hybrid, and fully remote. But Riley later urged districts not to announce a decision until August, when they had more information on the trajectory of the virus in their communities and potential state and federal support.

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Meanwhile, the teachers unions launched an aggressive statewide campaign focused on safety concerns including air quality in school buildings — a campaign which appeared to push the needle against in-person reopening in some communities.

At the beginning of August, after several districts voted to start school remotely, Governor Charlie Baker chastised districts, saying “the facts [didn’t] support” their decisions. Nearly a week later, the state issued guidelines and a color-coded map showing where COVID-19 positivity rates were low enough to reopen schools.

“The map was great, but about six weeks too late,” said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. Cambridge, Somerville, and the governor’s hometown of Swampscott, among others, had already voted to begin the year online.

Explaining the late release of the map, Riley said: “We have the best medical community in the world. And they took the time they needed to get the metrics done right.”

The governor, according to Scott, did an excellent job managing the public health recovery but has resisted managing the education recovery too forcefully. “The governor believes in small government” and local control, said Scott. “It’s been more than challenging to have that philosophy for education during the pandemic.”

At a recent press briefing, Baker defended his approach, saying he gave communities the guidance and resources they needed to reopen. How they used it was up to them.

Under state law, that decision “gets made by the locals,” he said. “If I could make it, I would ... but I do not have the authority to do that. I wish I did.”

Riley acknowledged that he wished some districts with low positivity rates had reopened at least partially in person. “We do recognize there are some misaligned districts,” he said, calling it “a real disservice to students.”

Different plans for testing

Both states are tapping federal coronavirus relief funding for districts to help with reopening costs. Massachusetts, with nearly 950,000 students, is setting aside $202 million for schools. Rhode Island, with only 15 percent as many students, has set aside $50 million. (Massachusetts officials add that they also gave cities and towns a total of $502 million to spend how they choose, with schools being one option.)

Rhode Island has a dedicated hot line for any student or school employee at all public and private schools to schedule an appointment for COVID testing at 14 different locations around the state. The testing centers are exclusively for students and staff, and have the capacity to run 5,000 voluntary tests a day.

Rhode Island has also set up an education operations center, in partnership with the National Guard, which provides round-the-clock support to districts with tasks ranging from installing air filtration systems to isolating students who fall ill.

Massachusetts has not set up a regular testing program, a decision which Riley said is based on advice from the Centers for Disease Control. Baker’s administration has set up a mobile clinic to offer rapid tests in schools with clusters of cases.

“I think what we just set up is the right approach based on the parameters we have,” Riley said.

Worcester Superintendent Maureen Binienda said more testing at the scale of the Rhode Island effort might be crucial to helping parents feel safe sending their children back to school. So far, about half of students in Worcester plan to stay at home when the district begins offering in-person classes later this fall.

Along with her city’s department of health, Binienda set up two days of free testing in Worcester for anyone who wants it. She would like to offer more regular testing for staff but wants the state to pay for it.

“If they knew everyone was getting tested, it would change everyone’s outlook on in-person learning,” she said.

Rhode Island schools opened on Sept. 14 with most districts choosing a mix of in-person and distance learning. They have a month to meet Raimondo’s deadline for a full return. The state has seen 19 confirmed cases among teachers and students across the state since the first day of school, but Raimondo said she was not alarmed.

“We will continue to see cases in school, just as we have seen cases all summer long,” she recently told reporters. “I’m confident we have the systems in place to handle it.”

As more schools in Massachusetts open for in-person learning, more cautious districts will be watching Rhode Island closely. Given the detrimental effects of remote education on many of the most vulnerable students, it’s tough not to hope the tiny state’s bold move succeeds.

If schools can’t safely reopen in person this year, said University of Massachusetts Amherst education professor Katie McDermott, “I can’t imagine how the long term consequences could not be bad for a lot of kids.”


Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at bianca.toness@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness. Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.