This is the Coronavirus Schools Briefing, a guide to the seismic changes in U.S. education that are taking place during the pandemic. Sign up here to get this newsletter in your inbox
SMITHFIELD, R.I. — This year, some things look different at Raymond C. LaPerche Elementary School, in a suburb of Providence. At recess, students play tag with pool noodles to stay sufficiently distanced and four square is a no-go (everyone touches the ball). Groups of friends eat lunch together, though they’re six feet apart. And students coordinate colorful masks with outfits and sneakers.
“The governor said we’re going back, so we’ve gone back,” said Julie Dorsey, the school’s principal, keeping one eye on a fidgety fifth-grade class at lunch. “We knew we had to be ready.”
Across the state, a majority of students are back in classrooms at least part time, in both public and private schools. In class, masks are mandatory. While many other states have left reopening plans up to individual districts, Rhode Island has centralized its approach.
Early on, Gov. Gina Raimondo put public and private schools on a single calendar to simplify reopening. She opened 14 rapid testing locations exclusively for students and teaching staff, and set up a statewide contact tracing system just for schools.
“These districts aren’t going to be able to do it on their own,” she told The Times. “I have studied the failure of the federal government to lead in this crisis, and I didn’t want that to happen to our cities and towns.”
The governor said she had to weigh risks of infection against permanent gaps in education.
“Is there a risk of spreading the virus by sending kids to school? Yes, obviously, of course,” she said. “But if we work hard enough, we can mitigate that risk substantially.”
“The risk of children being left behind academically, mentally and potentially permanently is 100 percent certain,” she added. “This is the front lines of equity. Who do you think is going to be left behind and permanently hurt by this?”
Rhode Island, the smallest state, is also one of the most densely populated; you can get anywhere by car in about an hour. Although its size may have made centralization easier, officials say it’s a scalable model for other states nationwide.
“This is a pandemic that has made clear that no one entity can do this alone,” said Nicole Alexander-Scott, the director of the state’s Department of Health. “It’s a whole of government approach.”
Early on in the pandemic Governor Raimondo called in the state’s National Guard to assist with school testing and logistics.
“You can leverage resources,” said Harrison Peters, Providence’s superintendent, speaking of the centralization. “What I like, too, is the purchasing power. When you go to get P.P.E. and you say: ‘Hey, we’ve got 24,000 kids,’ versus ‘Hey, I’ve got a state of about 200,000 kids,’ that’s going to put you at the beginning of the line.”
The Guard is also helping to run a 24/7 crisis command center, an operations hub that plans school walk-throughs, deploys substitute nurses and coordinates the statewide response. Phones ring regularly with questions and concerns from administrators, while staff members also plan for the future. So far, they’ve fielded over 260 calls and made over 45 visits.
In a briefing on Wednesday, Governor Raimondo said the state has seen positive cases in 95 schools since reopening, with 69 having only one case. About 6,000 students and staff members have been tested through the state’s designated PreK-12 testing system, with a 2 percent positivity rate — almost half of which were for students and teachers who had not set foot in a classroom.
“That means in all of those schools, the system is working,” she said. “The testing is working. The contact tracing is working. We haven’t seen outbreaks. If and when we do, we will handle them.”
On the second day of school, several administrators at the Anthony Carnevale Elementary School, in Providence, had to quarantine. Within hours, the state’s rapid response team stepped in, hearing teachers’ complaints, beefing up cleaning protocols and fine-tuning the plan.
“Because we had those conversations, we had the protocol and the procedures in place, my team knew what to do,” said Sindy Giard, the school’s principal. “When something like this happens, you have to review your plan and tweak it a little bit.”
Dorsey, the principal in Smithfield, regularly refers to an exhaustive protocol guide that the state put out to help educators think through possible scenarios. “The protocols are awesome,” she said. “Anytime I’m like, ‘What kind of sign am I supposed to have in the bathrooms?’ I just look it up.”
Administrators and health officials say the ultimate success of Rhode Island’s plan isn’t about avoiding coronavirus cases altogether — that’s just not realistic — but about how the system handles them.
“It’s definitely a when. I know that. We know that,” Dorsey said. “Having the first adult isolated case really showed me the process. It was like: ‘OK. We figured that one out. Now we’ll move on to the next one.’”
Around the country
Students and faculty at the University of Notre Dame are furious with the school’s president, who tested positive for the virus after he failed to wear a mask at a White House ceremony.
Our colleague Marie Fazio took a close look at the weirdness of having your first semester of college during the pandemic. It’s a great piece.
Baylor University suspended all football-related activities after recent positive coronavirus tests.
The New England Small College Athletic Conference announced the cancellation of the Division III league’s winter sports season.
Shasta County, Calif., will face greater restrictions as it grapples with a surge in coronavirus cases, many of them tied to Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry, an evangelical college, where more than 120 students and staff members have tested positive in the last two weeks.
A professor at Dominican University in Illinois quit his job to protest unsafe working conditions during the pandemic, NBC Chicago reported.
Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. paused in-person classes following an outbreak tied to an off-campus gathering where masks were not worn and social distancing was not observed, officials said.
Virginia public school districts will soon receive at least $100,000 each for coronavirus “preparedness and response,” the governor said.
New York City’s schools are starting a monthly coronavirus testing program as the city tries to stamp out an outbreak in several Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods.
California has not seen a link between the reopening of K-12 schools for in-person learning and increased coronavirus transmission, according to the state’s top public health official.
In Baldwinsville, N.Y., one student tested positive, forcing 77 students and six staff members into quarantine.
In Georgia, a teacher and advocacy group are suing Paulding County school officials and state leaders to require consistent safety guidelines and transparency.
Illinois public health officials said they verified outbreaks in at least 44 schools across the state.
A surge in cases in Minnesota means that only five small counties can safely operate all their schools on a normal in-person schedule, according to a state health officials.
A window into friendship
The Times asked students to weigh in on how they are maintaining friendships during the pandemic. It’s been hard for many, but some kids are finding surprising bright spots and learning important lessons.
Before quarantine, I only had a few main friends anyway, and not being able to hang out, spend time together and relate to each other as much as we were in school just made us drift apart. But as school started once again, I had more confidence to reach out to a lot of new people, and so I used the opportunity to make new friends. — Julianna L., IPoly High
I left my toxic fake friends before quarantine. During quarantine I got to work on myself and my art portfolio for college. My acquaintances have turned into my friends and it’s easy to make friends online. — Olivia R., Florida
Dani Blum contributed to this newsletter.
We’ll be taking off Monday for the Columbus Day holiday and hope you all have a restful day off school, too!