PROVIDENCE, R.I.--The Providence Teachers Union filed a lawsuit today in Rhode Island Superior Court, seeking to temporarily close Nathanael Greene Middle School in Providence, shift to distance learning and order the state education commissioner to immediately enact clear COVID-19 safety, health and staffing standards for all schools due to increasing COVID-19 outbreaks.
The suit names state Commissioner of Education Angelica Infante-Green, Providence Superintendent Harrison Peters and every member of the Providence School Board. PTU attorney John DeSimone asked for a hearing on Wednesday.
Nathanael Greene Middle School students and staff “have an incontrovertible right to work and learn in an environment that is safe and adheres to the guidelines laid down by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Rhode Island Department of Health,” the complaint said. Infante-Green “does not have the discretion to avoid her responsibilities under the law and regulations.”
PTU President Maribeth Calabro said the union exhausted attempts to resolve it through discussions but could not reach agreement on the need for more proactive steps to protect our school communities. “As more information comes in about cases and quarantines and resulting risks and understaffing at additional schools, we knew we had to move forward with this action,” she said.
Unlike many schools in other Rhode Island cities that have experienced COVID-19 cases, leaders of the state-controlled Providence Public School District have refused to close any Providence school experiencing COVID-19 infections, quarantines and related problems.
“We have reached a moment of urgency and emergency at Greene. It is unacceptable that state leaders, who took over the school district because they claimed they could turn it around, are actually harming students’ health and instruction with their wholly inadequate response to the health and safety crisis in Providence schools,” Calabro said.
The suit is asking that Infante-Green order Greene Middle School closed until it is compliant with safety procedures, protocols and regulations required by the CDC and RIDOH, including mandating that all students be seated six feet apart, having adequate staffing to ensure stable groups and having adequate contact tracing to ensure the safety of all students, faculty and staff. The suit is asking that Infante-Green order all schools in the Providence school district to adhere to those same guidelines.
The lawsuit said Greene is experiencing:
- An increasing number of COVID-19 cases. At least three students and two staff members have tested positive
- A “clear breakdown” of contract tracing. This includes a 10-day delay in informing employees and substitute teachers they were exposed to someone who tested positive.
- Poor social distancing, including some classrooms where students sit within two feet of each other, and other chronic unsafe in-school conditions.
- Limited staffing. For instance, during the week of Oct. 26 at least 33 staff members were out due to COVID-19 issues).
- Co-mingling of so-called stable pods by bringing in teachers from other buildings because so many Greene staff members are on sick leave.
- Greene teachers required to teach multiple classes because of understaffing.
“It’s unfortunate that we had to file a lawsuit to get state and school leaders to do what’s right and safe for our students and school staff. In the state’s obsessive push to have in-school learning, it has refused to put in place the necessary COVID-19 precautions that would give our community confidence in having students learn inside schools,” Calabro said.
The American Federation of Teachers, PTU’s national union, said the Providence community needs to be confident their schools are safe and healthy and have adequate staff to educate all students.
“This lawsuit is a necessary step to make sure every student and teacher, and the families they go home to, are safe. Providence school leaders need greater clarity to make safe and equitable decisions. Teachers want to be in school with their students but also want to be assured that decisionmakers are guided by science and driven by real, honest information about what’s happening in buildings. Schools and community members need clear, specific and transparent guidelines,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten.
AFT Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus said: “It saddens me that we have to come to this point. We have been, and continue to be, fully committed to collaborating with district and state leaders to strengthen Providence schools. Our goal is always to work together on behalf of kids. But on this issue, we couldn’t reach agreement on the level of action that’s needed to keep staff and students safe and make sure the whole school community feels assured that their well-being is central to decision-making. So we support the members of the Providence teachers Union in taking this legal step. We hope to resolve this and continue to move forward in a spirt of finding solutions.”
The lawsuit follows an Oct. 29 letter in which Calabro asked Infante-Green and Peters to temporarily close Greene and discuss how to resolve the various problems, including contact tracing delays, inadequate and dangerous health and safety conditions, serious understaffing and shifting staff and groups that break safe pods. The PTU said it intended to sue if the school leaders refused to discuss the problem; the response was unsatisfactory to the union. Calabro said it fell short of a defined metric or pathway to closing a classroom, a grade level, a team or a school should it be warranted due to COVID-19-related staffing issues that will impact the health and safety of those remaining in the school, as well as the instructional delivery model.