NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — The Rhode Island Department of Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green ruled Tuesday against the North Kingstown School Department’s decision to bar two students from in-person learning until Feb. 3 after they came to school in November while their father was awaiting COVID-19 test results, which came back positive, and subsequently the students tested positive as well, leading to 44 middle and high school students having to quarantine.
The students, who were not named as they are minors, attend one of the town’s two middle schools and North Kingstown High School respectively. Due to the violation of quarantine rules, both students were initially barred from in-person learning for the remainder of the school year, which their parents appealed to Superintendent Phil Auger, who upheld the ban but shortened it until Feb. 3.
The parents reached out to the ACLU of Rhode Island, which petitioned RIDE last week to allow their return, arguing the students being made to do solely remote learning was detrimental to their overall education, especially their younger child, who was noted to have disabilities which “reduced the efficacy of remote learning,” per a press release by the ACLU of Rhode Island.
In the decision, Infante-Green said that while the NKSD was working in the best intentions of protecting their students and staff and trying to send a clear message regarding not following quarantine rules, the children should not be “punished for the sins of their father,” citing the ancient Greek playwright Euripides.
“The NKSD presented no evidence to support the notion that denying children
in-person learning was a necessary and/or effective way to send a message to adults about the need for such compliance,” the decision, which was issued by Hearing Officer Anthony Cottone and approved by Infante-Green, read. “On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the children, and especially (the middle schooler), might well be harmed by denying them the opportunity to engage in in-person learning. As was noted, the Commissioner has emphasized that ‘educational outcomes, social emotional health, and well-being of students are optimal when students can learn in-person.’”
Following the announcement, Auger said he was disappointed with the decision.
“It’s disappointing that (RIDE) didn’t support us on this one because we are basically enforcing protocols that they helped put together with the Department of Health,” Auger said. “We take the safety of our kids and our staff very seriously.”
While the mother of the children, whose name was not released as to protect the identity of her children, said that her husband had not “start(ed) feeling severe symptoms until after receiving his positive results,” Auger said that was not exactly the case.
“This was a case where it wasn’t just someone who happened to be positive, it was a case where the dad had symptoms on Sunday, got tested on Monday and test results come back Thursday or Friday and only at that point, once the dad realizes that he’s positive, that they pull the kids out of school,” Auger said. “What they should’ve done is when the dad got tested because he had symptoms, they should’ve all been quarantined and alerted the school and so we felt like this was being really reckless in this case and so we felt like, ‘well, we need to educate the kids because it’s important, but we have more than one way of doing that right now’”
Auger said it was important to send a message as their “reckless decision” didn’t just affect that family, but the families of 44 other North Kingstown students.
“We needed to quarantine 44 kids at two different schools,” Auger said. “(The family’s) case to us was ‘well it’s really important to us that the kids are in school learning’ and our point was ‘exactly, and we feel the same way about those 44 other kids who had to go to distance learning for two weeks because of your recklessness.’ It could’ve been just their kids quarantining for two weeks, so we thought that that was just a blatant disregard of safety protocols around COVID, so that’s why we did what we did. I would’ve hoped that RIDE would’ve supported us (Tuesday), but it is what it is.”
In particular, Auger hopes the decision won’t set an unintended precedent of parents sending their students into classes when they should be quarantining.
“I hope that people don’t read this as ‘feel free to disregard the rules’ because even though we didn’t win this hearing, we stand adamant that people’s safety is at play here: our kids, our staff and if you’re showing symptoms or anybody in the household is showing symptoms, you really, really need to stay home and make sure that you’re okay before you come into school because, regardless of whether you end up spreading it or not, your presence in school when positive means that we’re going to have to disrupt the lives of a lot of other people who happen to be sitting next to you or in a room with you and that not only means that you’re putting the kids and the staff members safety at play, but it is also a major disruption to their lives,” Auger said. “Because of this situation, there were some parents who had to be home with their kids instead of going to work, so they weren’t earning a paycheck that week because of the reckless behavior of another family, so that’s the message we were trying to send.”
The students, who have been doing remote learning since November, will return to in-person learning with their classmates on Jan. 11, while they will be attending remote learning next week along with the rest of the district’s students.