RI Education Commission instructs RIDE to reject reopening plans that don’t include masks

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WLNE) – The Rhode Island Council on Elementary and Secondary Education voted Tuesday evening to instruct the Rhode Island Department of Education to reject any school reopening plans that do not include a mask mandate.

A RIDE lawyer, Anthony Cottone, confirmed that he told council members that RIDE does not have the authority to implement a mandate in districts statewide. He said that authority lies with Governor Dan McKee or the Health Department.

Cottone also told council members the decision could result in legal action from districts that do not want a mask mandate.

Larry Purtill, a member of the commission and President of the National Education Association of Rhode Island said the board wanted to send a message that it’s time to protect students.

“I don’t think we’re under-estimating the threat of the Delta variant, but I would much rather say six months from now, maybe we did overestimate it rather than underestimate it and end up with children in the hospital,” Purtill said.

According to Purtill, now that the vote has passed, districts that don’t include mandatory masking in their back-to-school plans will be denied. Those plans would be sent back by the Board of Education with recommendations to add mandatory masking.

Purtill says if the district refuses to do so, RIDE could take measures like withholding money, although, he says they hope it never gets to that point.

“According to state law, the power is vested in a lot of departments like the Governor’s office, Department of Health, but RIDE has a lot of power and they do have the right to make decisions about the opening of schools,” Purtill said. “We’ll see. We know this could be challenged, but we would rather have the mandate in place and let it be challenged and do what we believe is right.”

This comes after Governor Dan McKee said that it would be left up to the districts whether to impose a mandate.

Earlier this month, the CDC updated its guidance to recommend that all students and staff wear masks in schools as the Delta variant continues to spread.

Purtill says although the Governor has advocated for masking in schools, he wishes he would mandate it statewide.

“I think it puts local school committees and superintendents in a tough decision to make that decision, so I think that coming from the Board of Ed., Department of Health, or the Governor is the way to go.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Governor said,

Tonight’s vote by the council shows  they are aligned with what the Governor said earlier at his press conference today —that by the time school opens this year, all students will be wearing masks.

Our number one priority is the health and safety of our children and we already know and are encouraged that a large majority of our students will be wearing masks come fall. The Administration continues to believe that the best way to get all districts to mask up and enforce those policies is to work directly with them to address concerns and support them in preparing the safest environment possible for our kids.  While all options remain at the Governors disposal, our team will continue to reach out to the remaining districts, many of which are taking up this issue over the next week.”

Categories: News, Rhode Island