Rhode Island’s schools will reopen for in-person classes on Aug. 31 under a plan unveiled by Gov. Gina Raimondo on Wednesday.
“I am committed to this,” the governor said, flanked by state Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green and Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott. “We owe it to our children that there should be no disruption to their learning next year … The vision and the goal is nearly every kid, in school, in person, Aug. 31.”
Raimondo also announced that $42 million in funding Rhode Island received through the federal CARES Act will be distributed to school districts to help cover the multiple costs that will be involved in reopening buildings – everything from personal protective equipment and new safety measures to the additional busing that will likely be required. She said she is prepared to authorize additional federal funding as well.
“We will invest the necessary resources in order to make this possible,” she said.
The Ocean State’s schools abruptly shifted to a distance learning approach as the COVID-19 crisis unfolded locally in March. Weeks later, the decision was made to keep school buildings closed for the remainder of the current year as students and educators continued conducting lessons virtually.
In a first for the state, the plan presented by Raimondo and Infante-Green on Wednesday involves a unified calendar for all of Rhode Island’s public school districts. Raimondo said the “standardized” calendar was developed based on consultation with members of the educational community.
Raimondo said guidance regarding “minimum health and safety requirements” will be issued to school districts on by June 19. Districts will then be required to submit plans for the reopening – as well as for contingencies, such as a hybrid approach or a return to full distance learning – to the state by July 17.
“We are going to hold your hand every step of the way … We’ve learned how to be innovative and we’ve learned how to be flexible,” the governor said.
There were few additional specifics regarding how exactly in-person classes will look under the state’s plan, although Raimondo mentioned several likely aspects of the approach. They include more regular cleaning, spaced desks, staggered start times, the need for additional buses to allow for spacing of students, some form of mask-wearing requirements and a strict prohibition on children or educators coming to school if they are sick.
“We have prided ourselves on a perfect attendance culture. That’s going to have to change,” she said.
To that end, the officials said distance learning will continue to be incorporated in the state’s educational approach even when schools reopen. To the likely disappointment of students across the state, Infante-Green noted that severe wintry weather will no longer mean cancellation of classes.
“Snow days the way that we knew them before are gone,” she said.
Raimondo said the plan will include provisions meant to ensure the safety of older educators and those with underlying health concerns. Infante-Green also said officials will work on an individual basis with people who are immunocompromised or have medical considerations.
“There’s going to be a hybrid model and we’ll be working with individual cases,” she said.
The governor also said state officials are “hopeful” that private and independent schools will adopt the standardized calendar for the coming school year.
Elsewhere during Wednesday's briefing:
* In terms of COVID-19 data, the picture continues to improve. Wednesday’s update showed 66 additional cases identified among 2,539 new tests, a positive rate of roughly 2.6 percent. Other key numbers also remained steady or declined, with 148 people hospitalized, 27 in ICUs and 16 intubated as of Wednesday’s update.
The latest numbers include four new deaths, however, bringing the state’s toll to 812.
* A television special celebrating the state’s 2020 high school graduates, titled “Your Year 2020,” will air at 7 p.m. on June 15 on Rhode Island PBS, Raimondo said Wednesday. It will feature a keynote address from actress Viola Davis, as well as appearances by members of the New England Patriots and special musical performances. It will be followed by a virtual concert featuring well-known musicians and other celebrities.