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Officials: Despite COVID cases, school reopening on track

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Nineteen COVID-19 cases were identified among students, teachers and staff during the first two days of Rhode Island’s new school year, officials said Wednesday, although those positive tests were spread between 18 different schools and there is no indication yet of secondary spread of the coronavirus in school settings.

“The rapid response to each case is the key to keeping a lid on the virus,” Gov. Gina Raimondo said during her weekly COVID-19 briefing.

Acknowledging that more cases will be identified in schools as the year goes on, she added: “We want to get to a place where someone can test positive … and school continues.”

According to Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, eight of the cases were identified through the separate K-12 school testing system the state put into operation with the opening of classrooms on Monday. That system – which includes 14 testing sites statewide – swabbed approximately 300 people on Monday and Tuesday, the governor said. The other 11 school community cases were identified through separate testing locations.

Alexander-Scott said seven of the cases involved teachers or staff members and 12 involved students. Nine of those who tested positive had been inside school buildings, while the 10 others had not.

Raimondo and Alexander-Scott both attempted during Wednesday’s briefing to reassure anxious Rhode Islanders about the effectiveness of COVID-19 safety and response protocols in the state’s schools as thousands of students return to classrooms. They also restated a key objective of the governor – that the system allow for schools to continue in-person operations even after positive tests within specific settings.

The health director specifically mentioned the case that was identified at Carnevale Elementary School in Providence, which was reported on by several media outlets.

That case, she said, involved an adult staff member who began feeling sick during the day on Monday and went to an isolation room. That staffer was subsequently tested and received results the same day, she said. Contact tracing work began immediately, and three people at the school, all adults, were advised to quarantine.

“What’s key to know,” Alexander-Scott said during the briefing, “is that the school is still open today.” She said there have been no “large clusters” or “secondary transmission” observed at this point within school settings in Rhode Island.

Raimondo also noted the new multi-agency Education Operations Center set up to provide logistical support for school districts received more than 100 calls on Monday and Tuesday. Many of those calls, she said, involved questions about various safety and response procedures.

Additionally, Alexander-Scott said a COVID-19 data portal specific to schools is in the works to provide a “statewide glimpse at what’s happening.” That is expected to launch next week, she said.

The school reopening process has drawn backlash from some teachers, parents and educational leaders who question the safety of buildings and the state’s level of preparedness. Some districts, including Warwick, have drawn the public ire of the governor after opting to start the year with distance learning. On Wednesday, the governor was questioned about a lengthy list of concerns raised by the Bristol-Warren Education Association, which last week filed an unsuccessful legal action to prevent its district from opening.

Raimondo said she has visited schools during the week and found “excitement” among returning students. Most school districts, she said, “stepped up and delivered for these kids.”

“By and large, we’re having a great week and we had an excellent return to school,” she said

Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green offered a similar take.

“Like with everything, there have been some bumps,” she said, calling for “flexibility, patience and kindness” during the process.

Elsewhere during Wednesday’s briefing:

* The latest COVID-19 data update from the Department of Health shows a slight upward trend in new positive cases in Rhode Island, although Raimondo said the numbers are “not a reason for alarm.”

Wednesday’s update showed 86 new cases identified from 4,701 additional tests, a positive rate of 1.8 percent. That is higher than a week ago, when the rate had been around 1 percent with some consistency.

Three more Rhode Islanders have died in connection with COVID-19, bringing the state’s toll to 1,081. As of Wednesday, 84 Rhode Islanders were hospitalized due to the coronavirus, with nine being treated in ICUs.

“We just cannot let our guard down,” Raimondo said. * Raimondo announced changes to the Restore RI small business grant program designed to expand eligibility and distribute more of the $50 million allotted to the initiative.

As of next week, the program will for the first time accept applications from sole proprietors. Businesses are eligible for awards of up to $15,000.

Additionally, the state is lowering the “revenue loss” requirement for eligibility from 50 percent to 30 percent and allowing businesses with 50 or fewer employees to apply. Previously, only businesses with fewer than 20 employees were eligible.

“It is our hope that with these changes, many more businesses will apply, will be eligible,” Raimondo said.

As of Wednesday, the governor said, Restore RI had distributed just more than $7 million to roughly 800 businesses. * Raimondo and Alexander-Scott provided some additional details regarding the dedicated K-12 testing system, which the governor said she believes is unique to Rhode Island in a national context.

Appointments can be made by calling (844) 857-1814, seven days a week, between 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Same-day testing is available every day aside from Sunday. The tests are free, and Raimondo said there is a “guarantee” of same-day results.

Those who are swabbed through the K-12 system, she said, will actually receive two tests – the rapid-result test and the “more definitive” PCR test, for which results will be provided within 48 hours. She said even if a student or adult tests negative through the rapid results, they will not be allowed back to school until they have been symptom-free for at least 24 hours. * The governor also announced an additional $1 million of Rhode Island’s federal CARES Act funding will be directed toward the Take it Outside campaign, which is aimed at moving business and other activities outdoors to reduce transmission of the coronavirus.

The funding will be available to municipalities and organizations such as chambers of commerce, which can then distribute it to allow for the purchase of heating lamps, outdoor furniture, tents and other materials needed to allow for outdoor activities and commerce.

“Let’s have a can-do attitude and figure out what we can do … Those small investments go a long way,” Raimondo said. * Raimondo said the employment search tool Jobcase has partnered with the state to link Rhode Islanders with new job opportunities through the Back to Work RI training initiative. Through that program, she said, companies such as CVS, Electric Boat, Microsoft and Infosys have guaranteed to hire 3,000 re-trained Rhode Islanders by year’s end. Jobcase, she said, will help match people with available opportunities.

“This isn’t train and pray,” she said, stressing the job guarantee for those who participate in and complete the program. She said training is being done at CCRI, New England Tech and other institutions. * The governor additionally announced that the federal government has approved a new round of supplemental unemployment insurance payments for Rhode Islanders.

People who received unemployment benefits for the weeks ending Aug. 22, Aug. 29 and Sept. 5 will receive an additional $300 for each of the weeks in which they certified their eligibility, Raimondo said. That funding will come through an initial payment of up to $600 next week, she said, followed by an additional $300 the week after. Like the previous round of $300 weekly supplemental benefits, recipients will get the money automatically.

Raimondo added that at this point, federal officials have indicated no additional supplemental unemployment benefits will be forthcoming. * The final question from reporters during Wednesday’s briefing concerned what Halloween will look like in Rhode Island this year.

“We haven’t gotten that far yet, I’ll be brutally honest with you … Halloween has to go on, one way or another,” Raimondo responded. “We’ll have to get creative.”

Covid, schools

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