For full audio of the governor's follow-up conference call with reporters, click here.
Distance learning will remain in place for Rhode Island’s K-12 schools for the remainder of the academic year, Gov. Gina Raimondo announced Thursday, while traditional proms and graduation ceremonies “aren’t going to be possible this spring.”
“To be very honest, I had hoped to wind up in a different place … I wanted to give these kids a chance to end their school year in a traditional setting. The reality is, I can’t,” the governor said during her daily COVID-19 briefing.
Specifically addressing members of the graduating class of 2020, she added: “This is a bummer. There’s no other way for me to say it. And I’m sorry.”
School buildings across the Ocean State have been closed since mid-March, when Raimondo moved up the scheduled April vacation week to buy time for planning as the current public health crisis began to escalate locally.
The governor subsequently announced that school buildings would stay shut – first through March, then through April – while students and educators transitioned to remote instruction. Before Thursday’s announcement, however, she had kept the door open to a return to physical classrooms before the year’s end, saying she was not yet ready to “throw in the towel.”
During Thursday’s briefing, Raimondo said recent data surrounding the COVID-19 crisis – including the identification of 412 cases statewide, the highest-single day increase yet – indicates conditions do not yet exist to allow for school buildings to reopen. Additionally on Thursday, officials announced eight new deaths related to the novel coronavirus, while 267 people were hospitalized due to the disease.
“This is stable. It’s in the range of what we’ve been seeing. But still haven’t turned the corner,” the governor said, adding: “The truth of the matter is, we’re not out of the woods … we’ve worked too hard for too long to throw away that great work.”
She also said officials “explored every possible option” to reopen schools, but determined the level of risk would be “irresponsible” – especially given that only a few weeks of physical classrooms, at most, would be possible. She added that 39 other states have also decided to keep schools closed for the rest of the year.
Aside from the data, Raimondo said the positive returns seen to date with distance learning played a role in the decision. She acknowledged the strain the new approach has placed on many families, educators and students, but touted high participation rates and success in expanding access to digital tools and resources.
“No one’s ever done this before. We’re doing things together … that have never been done before,” she said, adding: “Turns out you’re among the best in America at it … by every measure, you’re doing an amazing job.”
She later said: “Let’s hit the cover off the ball and not loose steam, because frankly, it’s too important.”
The governor said a distance learning hotline previously open to teachers will now be available to parents through a partnership with the Highlander Institute. That hotline can be reached at 904-414-4927 or by visiting thehighlanderinstitute.org.
Rhode Island Education Commission Angélica Infante-Green also addressed the announcement during the briefing, calling the distance learning experience “one of my proudest moments” since arriving in the Ocean State less than a year ago.
“Rhode Island is a model for the nation on many fronts now,” she said, adding: “I’m grateful for the opportunity for my kids to continue to learn, as I know you are as well … We need your voice as we continue.”
At two points, Infante-Green spoke Spanish while addressing members of the state’s Latino community, which has comprised a disproportionate share of COVID-19 cases thus far.
Raimondo said with the decision now made on the school year, she and members of her administration will turn their focus to planning for summer programming and finding solutions in terms of child care. Summer camps, she said, will be available but will “look different than last year.”
“I’m not saying to parents, ‘Good luck, see you in September’ … I hope to have something more to say next week about child care, and then summer camps in the coming weeks,” she said, adding: “The next big focus is child care and day care, and that, too, will reopen in stages.”
The governor acknowledged that the decision will mean the cancellation of the spring sports season, noting that the Rhode Island Interscholastic League has previously indicated it would make that move were school buildings not to reopen.
In terms of proms and graduations, Raimondo said plans for alternative means of having group celebrations and recognizing graduating students are in the works. Rhode Island PBS will host a statewide graduation special in June featuring guest speakers, musical performances and contributions from the state’s high schools, she said, while the Rhode Island Department of Education is set to provide districts with additional recommendations and guidance.
“We’re going to do lots of other stuff … We’re going to get creative and we’re going to recognize you and your accomplishments and your talent in new and different ways,” the governor said, adding: “Trust me, we’re going to do our best, and it’s going to be better than you might think.”
Elsewhere on the educational front, the governor urged students who have not yet done so to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. She also said she and her husband, Andy Moffit, will host another special press conference for the state’s children on Thursday, April 30, at 1 p.m.