PROVIDENCE — A sharp rise in COVID cases across the state has the topic of in-person learning high on everyone’s priority list.
During a press conference last week, Governor Gina Raimondo said COVID cases are rising in other states and other countries whether students are in school or not.
On Monday two unions representing the majority of the state’s teachers and educational professionals called for a “holiday pause” of in-person learning and a move toward distance learning for all Rhode Island K-12 students by Nov. 23.
According to state data, there are 695-699 cumulative student cases statewide since Sept. 14. Cumulative staff cases statewide are 395-399. The number of new student cases in the last seven days was 150-154. (Note: Data was updated on Nov. 12 and included positive cases as of Nov. 7).
But the question remains. Is it safe to have students back in the classroom?
When it comes to schools, Raimondo said in places seeing second and third waves, they are having those waves whether children are in school or not.
“Cases are rising at the same rates everywhere whether schools opened six weeks ago, six months ago or haven’t opened at all,” she said. “In Europe, they’re generally keeping schools open even during the lockdowns because we all now know that schools are not major spreaders and children suffer mightily, and in the long-run, if we close our schools.”
And she’s not alone. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker last week said after visiting a public school before his daily briefing Friday that schools in his state aren’t the spreaders because the plan and procedures they have in place to keep students safe are working.
Yet Rhode Island set the population percent positive rate threshold for sending children back at below 5% this summer. As of Monday, the state was at 3.3% with cases increasing daily.
Former Rhode Island Department of Health Director Dr. Michael Fine, M.D. said Monday as community transmission goes up, the likelihood of staff and teachers becoming infected and schools becoming the interchange place continues to rise. “I think people are keeping that threshold as a there may come a time when we can’t do this anymore,” he said. “I think that will mostly be when teachers and staff are widely affected,” Fine said about keeping schools open as the state approaches the 5% threshold.
The rise in community spread of COVID-19 across Rhode Island has educators this week asking for a temporary move to distance learning statewide, saying it’s a “common-sense critical step in driving down incidence rates.”
Citing the fact that the state has exceeded nearly every data threshold established to justify the safe return of in-person learning in the fall, union representatives say there’s a renewed sense of urgency to return to distance learning.
“In August, NEARI and RIFTHP came together to call upon Governor Raimondo and the RI Department of Education to meet additional requirements for safety prior to the start of in-person learning and the governor responded,” said RIFTHP President Frank Flynn in a press release issued Monday. “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.”
“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,” said NEARI President Larry Purtill in the same press release. “Districts already burdened and stretched thin are not equipped, nor do they have the capacity, to take on this duty.”
On Friday, the Warwick School Committee approved a return to full week in-person learning for Kindergarten through Grade 5. At the time committee members said students won’t be returning to the classroom until at least Dec. 1, after air purifiers are installed in the schools. A decision to send Grade 6 students back to Veterans and Winman Middle Schools is expected this week.
Fine says he worries about the science on which conclusions about opening schools are based, adding that he doesn’t know if any schools are doing what colleges are — testing everyone twice a week.
“The best science I’ve seen is the science that comes out of watching the colleges,” Fine said. “If you test people twice a week and have enough command and control to isolate those who are positive, you can really control the spread of the disease. Similar to what’s been learned in South Korea, Thailand and other places.”