“Governor Raimondo should take pride in how she has led Rhode Island through this pandemic. She is unwisely gambling all of that progress on a full in-person reopening of schools. When it comes to the health of students, teachers and families, the wager is not worth it.“
At her July 8 press briefing, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo said that Donald Trump’s insistence that schools open for full in-person instruction—or face the withholding of federal funds—was reckless and irresponsible. I agree with the Governor’s words, but her actions speak otherwise. So long as the Governor and Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green insist that full in-person reopening on August 31 is the goal, their goal aligns with Trump’s. If they want to prove themselves responsible leaders and show their commitment to students’ health and safety, they must change course completely and immediately.
Over the past few weeks, I have been part of my district’s team of administrators, teachers and staff, who are tasked with formulating four different plans (from full distance learning to full in-person) to submit to the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) by July 17. According to the guidance we have received, the default setting for these plans is full in-person opening on August 31. All other plans build off of this. However, as we go through all the difficulties and contradictions of health and safety requirements vs the structure and practical limitations of our school buildings and educational requirements, I have come to the conclusion that all of these plans start from a faulty premise and reach potentially catastrophic conclusions. We must start from the correct premise—that in the midst of a global pandemic, health and safety outweigh all else—in order to come to correct conclusions. Here are my recommendations:
- Make full distance-learning the default plan for all districts, and focus educators’ summer planning on improving distance learning and making it more effective. Focus support staff and social-emotional educational needs on the difficulties that emerged from our emergency distance-learning experience this past spring.
- Develop a plan for a phased-in reintroduction to schools. We have gradually reopened the economy through phases—why not do the same for schools? A limited return of some students to in-person learning will also yield clearer ideas about how to implement health and safety requirements while delivering quality instruction. We currently have no idea how both follow health and safety guidelines while delivering quality instruction, but we could stand to experiment with smaller groups of students with greater attention to health and safety before we dive back into pre-pandemic-style instruction.
- RIDE should waive the requirement that students receive 330 minutes of in-person instructional time. It is universally acknowledged that students should not spend 5.5 hours a day on screens, and our distance learning framework did not approach the 330-minute requirement. As it is, “seat time” is a pedagogically unsound and antiquated concept. When schools are tasked with implementing health screening, social distancing, etc., the 330-minute requirement becomes completely unworkable.
- Transportation to schools should be completely taken over and organized by RIDE. The bus companies have thus far refused to take any responsibility for screening students or even cleaning and sanitizing the buses following Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) guidelines. They cannot be trusted partners in the reopening of schools.
- Equity should be at the core of all of these plans. The Governor should consider making the internet a public utility, with a program to ensure quality Wi-Fi access at home for all students.
- RICAS should be canceled for the 2020-21 school year.
Governor Raimondo should take pride in how she has led Rhode Island through this pandemic. She is unwisely gambling all of that progress on a full in-person reopening of schools. When it comes to the health of students, teachers and families, the wager is not worth it.