PROVIDENCE, RI — One week ahead of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s expected announcement that Rhode Island schools will reopen Sept. 14, the state announced the creation of a new team dedicated to supporting schools and the Rhode Island Department of Education as students return to classrooms.
“I am announcing now we are launching, effective today, an Education Operation Center,” Raimondo said at Monday’s news conference. “[It will be] entirely focused on providing real-time support to the schools.”
The EOC, which will operate similar to those organized during blizzards, hurricanes and other state emergencies, will be staffed by members of the National Guard, departments of Education and Health, Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency and the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority. The round-the-clock operations center will be on-call to provide support to districts and help address issues as they arise.
“We’re there for you. You’re not alone in school systems,” Raimondo said. “When you have a teacher or student who tests positive, which is going to happen — it will happen — we’ll be prepared for it.”
Raimondo also announced that the state will take charge of testing, contact tracing and coronavirus case investigation efforts in schools across the state, including religious, private and other nonpublic schools. Because Rhode Island is so small, there are no strong county governments, she said, making it better to undertake the effort on a statewide level, using the infrastructure created in the previous months of the pandemic.
Following the calls from teachers’ unions, parents and other members of the public, Raimondo committed to having every Rhode Island school individually inspected by a “facilities readiness team” before the first day of school. More information about facility standards is expected to be released in a 13-page report Wednesday. The team includes an air-quality specialist who will consider factors such as ventilation and air flow.
To ensure schools continue to meet facilities standards throughout the school year, the team will conduct “continuous, unannounced” inspections once the school year in underway.
Although public schools are scheduled to reopen Sept. 14, private schools can open sooner if they are ready, Raimondo said, provided it is after her final reopening decision next Monday and that their reopening plan has been approved by the Department of Education.
“It is all designed to do right by our teachers and do right by or students … We are going to learn a lot. We are going to be good on Sept. 14. We are going to be a lot better on Oct. 14.”
While many teachers, parents and students continue to express reservations about in-person classes, Raimondo said that it’s very important for the state to do everything it can to avoid continuing fully distanced learning.
“It’s not always safe for kids to stay home,” Raimondo said, citing a drop in immunizations, increased mental health concerns such as anxiety, depression and self harm and lower learning retention compared to in-person learning. “The stories are how students have struggled with distance learning the last six months are truly heartbreaking … We owe it to this generation to do everything in our power to get these children back in school.”