“Our leaders claim that the safety of students and teachers is their top priority, but their decisions tell a very different story. If you are determined to reopen schools (and the economy) for political reasons, there is no shortage of insincere guidance from a variety of politically compromised institutions and experts…”
It was good while it lasted.
For a few months, at least, it felt like we lived in the kind of society that would flip the economy on its head to save a few lives. Deep down, though, we knew it was always about the money, and a notion as quaint as preventing CoV-2 outbreaks in our poorest communities could not be permitted to influence the making of consequential decisions indefinitely.
The chickens came home to roost in June, just as the pandemic’s initial onslaught started to wane and the economy grew ever more impatient. It started with Trump and Wall Street, then trickled down to state leaders like Gov. Gina Raimondo, who pivoted from taking the threat of CoV-2 seriously to finding common ground with the president on a major policy position in the space of a few demoralizing months. Like Trump, whose bluster would eventually subvert the credibility of institutions as well regarded as the Centers for Disease Control, governors of all political stripes became convinced that their political futures depended on pandering to parents who found themselves in a difficult spot and the employers who were only too happy to put them there.
The full extent of Raimondo’s dereliction of duty was revealed on Monday, when her administration announced that all but two districts had been cleared for full in-person instruction by meeting five suspiciously attainable metrics the state had set for itself just weeks prior. Even the two districts that didn’t pass muster, Central Falls and Providence, missed the mark by a hair and were approved for “some” in-person learning, which, in the case of Providence, at least, means that most grades will be reporting for school on Sept. 14.
Despite the obvious appeal and popularity of hybrid learning models, the State of Rhode Island has satisfied itself that mask wearing, distancing and responsive testing will enable districts to pack students in like it was 2019 — even though classroom sizes of up to 30 students would seem to preclude even the most relaxed distancing scheme.
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In point of fact, there were so many problematic moments at Monday’s briefing, it was a challenge to catalogue and appropriately condemn each blithe outrage in a single, coherent response. The following is a bulleted account of the myriad errors of judgement, leadership, courage, morality and common sense that have deposited us on the doorstep of a Covid-19 resurgence in Rhode Island.
- On two occasions during Monday’s briefing, state leadership casually admitted why it has pushed so relentlessly for school reopening. At one point, RIDOH Director Nicole Alexander-Scott noted that mitigative measures (in all areas of public life) would allow us to keep our economy strong; at another, Raimondo remarked that business owners had been awaiting the state’s decision on schools. If you’re wondering why state officials would weigh the expectations of the business sector in a decision about the health and safety of schoolchildren, much less admit to it, you’re not alone.
- The state’s double standard on gathering restrictions cannot be resolved by the baseless assumption that teachers will get better mask, distancing and hygiene compliance from children than restaurant, bar and club owners have been able to wrest from adult patrons. The state’s case for reopening is based, in no small part, on this fundamental hypocrisy.
- Raimondo continued to demean teachers with dismissive, paternalistic language. This time, she asked teachers to “muster the courage” to return to the classroom, a characterization that presumes teachers are motivated exclusively by fear for their own safety, instead of a host of interrelated concerns for their students, their loved ones and society at large.
- Raimondo suggested that the state’s decision to “greenlight” full in-person learning in most districts was based on data, ostensibly gathered since the reopening metrics were unveiled in July. Despite the governor’s insistence on calling this “new data” on more than one occasion during the briefing, most data points have remained more or less stable during this time, and one could have predicted at any point during the summer that most districts would end up meeting the state’s standards — especially since four of five metrics were satisfied by all but two districts on the very day they were created.
- Raimondo tried her best to obfuscate the fact that she does not have the authority or political will to compel districts to reopen for full in-person learning by the Oct. 13 deadline (which is the latest deadline, but not necessarily the last). Despite giving districts the green light to reopen, she admitted that it would be appropriate, and possibly even advisable, for districts to start the process with caution. In other words, they don’t have to reopen for full in-person learning until Oct. 13.
- The governor may be reluctant to throw her weight around, but she had no qualms about inciting parents to take legal action against districts that maintain that full in-person learning cannot be done safely, in spite of the aforementioned “new data.” On Tuesday, Raimondo said her office would be happy to help aggrieved parents explore their legal options, while noting that the districts’ continued intransigence could cost them federal funding (a notion she suddenly finds unobjectionable).
- In her confusing explanation of RIDOH’s purportedly proactive testing system, Alexander-Scott made it sound like the state’s plan for surveillance testing (in other words, the precautionary testing of asymptomatic people) depends on subject-initiated testing requested through the usual channels. This is a strange way to be proactive, and a patently ineffective way to track transmission among children, who frequently exhibit mild symptoms or are asymptomatic.
- Because reopening readiness is clearly decided on a district-by-district basis, state readiness is a meaningless metric. Even at our peak in Spring, few Rhode Island communities had significant infection rates — the outbreak was driven by population centers, such as C.F. and Providence. Places like Richmond, Little Compton and Barrington were always going to skew the statewide numbers, essentially rendering them useless. By all indications, this metric was included to pad the state’s case. Also, In case you think towns with low rates are safe to reopen, keep in mind that schools are staffed by people from all parts of the state.
- The operational readiness metric is rife with soft targets (like requiring districts to have a plan for dealing with sick students and staff) and features one benchmark that merits its own metric (benchmark No. 2). The state cares only that districts have submitted reasonable plans to address such vital considerations as pod stability, transportation and facility readiness, not whether the plans are likely to achieve some specified resolution. In fact, R.I. has not created statewide standards to ensure uniformity or quality among proposed solutions, nor has it completed school inspections in order to independently verify districts’ self-assessments. It is not clear why districts were graded on this metric before the completion of site walkthroughs. Also, this metric calls for “accommodations for staff with underlying health conditions,” but, according to school staff, that is not happening everywhere.
- Raimondo admitted that there will be outbreaks at schools, which, given the likely inadequacy of the state’s testing system, could have dire consequences for our most vulnerable populations. It is chilling to hear the governor accept a potentially deadly outcome that could be avoided by recommitting to remote learning for at least another semester.
- Like most pro-reopening politicians, Raimondo grossly overstates the educational, psychological and nutritional costs of remote learning. In truth, last year’s remote learning experiment produced mixed results. Some teachers were better at remote teaching than others and some students responded more positively than others. Believe it or not, a percentage of students actually excelled when liberated from the highly structured, compulsory, anxiety-inducing atmosphere of school. When you consider that nutritional and mental health needs can be (and in many cases have been) met without in-person school, and that, given time and resources, remote instruction could be meaningfully optimized, the scale looks less unbalanced than Raimondo would have you believe.
- Do you know what will happen when the flu meets the pandemic this Winter? Yeah, no one does.
- Raimondo’s refrain that risk can be mitigated but never eliminated is a particularly pernicious, unuseful piece of rhetoric. Of course, I can take steps to mitigate the risk of drinking lead-contaminated water, for example. While I could certainly filter the water and hope for the best, the most prudent course of action would depend on how long I can expect my water supply to be contaminated and what alternatives are at my disposal. If I knew that my city was in the process of securing a clean water source, I might just buy bottled water (which can be expensive and inconvenient) until the issue is resolved. Why would I mess around with lead-contaminated water when I have options? Like bottled water, remote learning is a perfectly reasonable, if less than ideal, solution to a temporary problem.
- No one is suggesting that we abandon public education as we know it — we simply think that remote learning isn’t so bad that we should reopen a massive, statewide institution, the mere operation of which is guaranteed to cause outbreaks, in order to avoid it. In our view, this is not an acceptable risk.
- Raimondo expressed regret that the state’s reopening standards included a weekly cases threshold of 100 per 100,000 people, which precluded Central Falls (which has a rate of 114) and Providence (around 100) from reopening fully. She even wondered aloud if the state might focus more on the test-positivity rate in the future, a number that can be manipulated through test volume and repeat testing. For a little perspective on how these rates stack up, the Town of Lincoln has a weekly rate of 28 cases per 100,000. Little Compton has a weekly rate of 1 per 100,000.
- Despite Raimondo’s repeated claim that families will have the ability to opt for full remote learning, we have confirmed that parents in Central Falls are not being offered that option. In summary, then, the district with the highest Covid rates in the state (a district that is funded and managed by the state, by the way) will not offer a remote option for its students. Should we assume that Raimondo will offer to help parents in Central Falls sue the district for failing to provide a quality remote option?
Our leaders claim that the safety of students and teachers is their top priority, but their decisions tell a very different story. If you are determined to reopen schools (and the economy) for political reasons, there is no shortage of insincere guidance from a variety of politically compromised institutions and experts. The truth is that no one knows exactly how Covid-19 affects the long-term health of adults and children, and we have almost no idea what will happen when CoV-2 meets the flu this Fall. When you factor in studies that suggest that young children may be efficient spreaders of coronavirus despite exhibiting few, if any, symptoms, our state’s official position on reopening schools looks abjectly irrational. If they reopen schools fully and rely on testing, contact tracing and quarantining to prevent outbreaks from becoming resurgences, are they really putting health and safety first?
Dr. Anthony Fauci recently said that he believes there will be a viable vaccine earlier than expected. Ask yourself this question: Why would a state rush children back to school mere months before we have the tools to meaningfully curb the spread of CoV-2? Is remote learning so odious that we’re willing to avoid it at all costs?