PROVIDENCE — The two unions that represent nearly all of Rhode Island’s public school teachers are calling for a “holiday pause” for in-person learning through at least the end of the calendar year as COVID-19 cases continue to surge across the state. Meanwhile, two more schools temporarily halted in-person education because of the coronavirus, and Providence Municipal Court on Sunday announced it has canceled all arraignments and hearings until further notice.
National Education Association Rhode Island President Larry Purtill and Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals President Frank Flynn said Monday that they would like schools to move to full remote learning by Nov. 23, and remain out of school until the new year.
Governor Gina Raimondo has so far been reluctant to close schools amid the spike in COVID-19 cases — last week she said “there isn’t a shred of evidence” that schools are to blame for the increase — but the pressure from the unions likely will make it difficult for her to avoid taking action.
“Rhode Island is experiencing record high number of cases and an overwhelmed Department of Health, despite their best efforts, is falling behind with the required contact tracing that ensures effective quarantining and overall safety of students and educators,” Purtill said in a prepared statement. “Districts already burdened and stretched thin are not equipped, nor do they have the capacity, to take on this duty.”
Rhode Island reported nearly 5,000 new cases between Nov. 6 and Nov. 12, and hospitalizations have increased so dramatically that Raimondo warned last week that the state is at risk of running out of hospital beds within the next month.
Raimondo has been among the most vocal governors in the country when it comes to keeping students in school, but teachers have complained that the state’s system for quarantining close contacts of COVID-19 cases has resulted in massive staff shortages in districts across the state. Several public and private schools or districts have moved to remote learning until at least Nov. 30.
Cranston ordered a temporary move to distance learning last week, but was expected to resume in-person classes this week. On Monday, Bishop Hendricken High School in Warwick announced that classes will be held virtually after four students and two staffers tested positive for the disease, authorities said. The all-boys Catholic school in Warwick plans to return to in-person learning on Tuesday if contact tracing can be completed by the end of Monday, the Associated Press reported. Orlo Avenue Elementary School in East Providence is moving to virtual learning until Nov. 30 because of COVID-19-related staffing issues, WJAR-TV reports.
“In August, NEARI and RIFTHP came together to call upon Governor Raimondo and the R.I. Department of Education to meet additional requirements for safety prior to the start of in-person learning and the governor responded,” Flynn said in a statement. “Here we are three months later in a COVID landscape that has gone beyond the original parameters put in place for reopening schools in September and has since exceeded nearly every data threshold. We have a renewed sense of urgency to move to distance learning.”
The unions maintain that the holiday pause would allow the health department to catch up contact tracing and create a system that allows for testing in all schools on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, and allow for the installation of air filtration devices that districts ordered earlier this year.
In a statement, Department of Education Emily Crowell declined to directly address the unions’ request.
“We will continue to work with the Department of Health and our colleagues across state government to monitor the spread of COVID-19 in Rhode Island,” Crowell said. “We know that in-person learning is the best option for our kids and that our schools are following rigorous safety protocols in order to support our students and teachers who are in the classroom. We appreciate the hard work and the dedication of our school leaders across the state, who have continued to meet the educational needs of our students despite challenges and changes.”