One Week Out, Raimondo Says In-Person School Looks Like a Go

by | Aug 24, 2020

Above: Gov. Gina Raimondo speaks to the press from Veterans Auditorium in Providence Monday about the state’s response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Pool photo: Kris Craig / Providence Journal

She outlines a variety of state supports to work with school districts during this pandemic year.

Data: The R.I. Department of Health said there were 39 new cases of COVID-19 Monday, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in Rhode Island to 21,302. There were no new deaths on Monday but 5 deaths over the weekend, for a total of 1,035. The number of confirmed cases in East Greenwich remains at 119; 3,305 residents have been tested, 25 percent of the town’s population (13,073). The town’s test-positive rate is 4 percent. Find the most recent data at the DOH data hub HERE

At Governor Gina Raimondo’s press conference Monday afternoon, she announced $900 for Rhode Islanders receiving unemployment insurance benefits and a new operations center to support schools. 

She said funding has been approved and received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency which will guarantee an extra $300 for three weeks, meaning $900 total, for Rhode Islanders who have already been receiving unemployment insurance benefits. The Department of Labor and Training is setting up a system to disperse the money and it should be distributed in the next few weeks.  

“This is temporary and I’m calling on the Trump administration to do the right thing and make it permanent or do something even more for the millions of Americans who are out of work,” Raimondo said. 

Raimondo also announced the launch of an Education Operations Center (EDOC) that will operate around the clock providing real-time support to the state’s K-12 schools, utilizing the expertise of the National Guard. She said it will operate similarly to an Emergency Operations Center’s response to hurricanes, blizzards or other national disasters. EDOC will be staffed by people across state agencies including the National Guard, the Department of Education, the Department of Health, the Department of Transportation, RIPTA and the Emergency Management Agency. 

She also outlined what individual school districts – or Local Education Agencies (LEAs) – should provide for schools and what the state – EDOC – will provide. 

Raimondo said, principals and superintendents must provide high-quality learning experiences. They also must immediately isolate symptomatic students, report all probable cases, and assist DOH with case investigation. They must implement all health and cleaning protocols, ensure safe transportation for all students based on state guidance with help from the National Guard, as well as maintain PPE and cleaning supplies. Finally, they must establish clear and frequent communication between their school community and RIDE and DOH. 

Through EDOC, DOH will provide ongoing public health guidance, case investigation, contact tracing, and testing for all staff and students. They’ll also lead on-site facility walkthroughs. RIDE will provide operating guidance and instructional support with a focus on learning outcomes to ensure every school has the best possible in-person and distance learning platforms. They’ll be communicating constantly with school leaders. Additional state supports will provide on the ground assistance teams, supplies and planning and logistics support. 

She stressed that EDOC will be ready to assist any school with whatever they need on an ongoing basis. For example, if a school is running low on masks or hand sanitizer, the team will immediately arrange to get those supplies. If a student or teacher tests positive for COVID, the team will be on the ground at the school immediately to isolate, test and quarantine in order to prevent an outbreak. 

By next week, Raimondo said, every school district will have a designated single point of contact at the EDOC to make sure there’s a clear line of communication. This center will ramp up over the next few weeks, especially with the return of teachers Sept. 9 and the return of students Sept. 14. Once schools are reopened, the leaders at EDOC will be prepared to send out assistance teams to any school across the state at a moment’s notice. 

Raimondo also announced a facilities readiness team with the sole purpose of walking through every public school to assess their compliance with DOH’s facilities guidelines. DOH has developed a detailed, 13-page guidance document that covers every element of a safe school, including classroom layouts, hallway layouts, cleaning and air circulation. These walkthroughs will occur prior to any student entering these facilities for the first time. She said an air quality expert would be participating in these walkthroughs to make sure schools have taken the appropriate precautions to circulate the air. 

She noted these walkthroughs won’t stop once schools reopen. The team will be kept in place throughout the school year, conducting continuous and unannounced inspections and audits to make sure schools are doing what they’re supposed to do to keep students and teachers safe. 

Next Monday, Raimondo said she will announce the school reopening decisions based on where the state is with data, ability to provide testing, and other operational supports. 

“We’re in a good place right now, but next Sunday night we’ll look back at this week’s cases and if we start to see a spike or something happens, we’d have to pull back,” she said. “Right now, as we stand here, it seems highly unlikely that next Monday I would say no.” 

She said that the state intends to provide all schools, including non-public schools, with the same testing, contact tracing and case investigation support. The details of what this system will look like can be found here on Wednesday.

Raimondo also said non-public schools – private schools, parochial schools, religious schools – who are ready to reopen and have had their plans reviewed are allowed to do so prior to Sept. 14. However, they do have to wait until Aug. 31 when she announces whether or not school will reopen with in-person learning.  

“There is no perfect,” Raimondo said. “I’m doing the best with my decisions. Today as I come before you for our 101st press conference, we are reporting among the best states in America for getting our economy back to where it was and also a percent positive rate of 1.1 percent. As we evaluate how we’re doing with coronavirus, it’s a terrible thing. We have 100,000 people out of work and my heart goes out to all of you. But relative to a lot of other states, I think we’re holding our own pretty well.”

Raimondo also announced a municipal resilience taskforce of eight people, including four municipal leaders selected by the League of Cities and Towns, two private sector leaders, and two budget and revenue officials representing the state. That group will be tasked with developing recommendations for cities and towns on innovative strategies and tactics to prepare for a post-COVID future where the government can be responsive while saving money. This will include shared services, intergovernmental partnerships and new technology. 

Raimondo highlighted the mental health struggles of students while distance learning, noting a story she heard from a pair of East Greenwich parents who said their son had always been a star student, “essentially checked out during distance learning and fell behind.” 

“Is it safe to leave a kid at home knowing depression, anxiety, isolation and suicidal thoughts are on the rise?” Raimondo said. “Knowing many kids will be left home alone trying to teach themselves on a computer? We owe it to this generation of children to do everything in our power to get them back in school.” 

Raimondo encouraged families to pick up the phone and call their pediatrician or community health center to get their kids immunized, noting that only 75 percent of kids entering kindergarten this year will have all their necessary immunizations and about 50 percent for kids entering seventh grade. 

Next week, there will be a press conference held every single day at 1 p.m. On Monday, there will be a full-length conference at 1 p.m. to discuss a variety of different topics related to COVID-19. On the other four days, there will be a 15-minute conference at 1 p.m. to talk about K-12 public schools reopening.

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