RI Teachers Union Fights To Temporarily Close Middle School

By Danielle Nichole Smith
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Law360 (November 3, 2020, 4:17 PM EST) -- The Providence Teachers Union has lodged a suit looking to shut down in-person learning at a Rhode Island middle school, alleging that the school is violating state policies meant to keep students and staff safe during the coronavirus pandemic and needs to close until it complies.

In a press release Monday, the Providence Teachers Union, Local 958, AFT, AFL-CIO announced its case against Rhode Island Commissioner of Education Angelica Infante-Green, Providence Public School District Superintendent Harrison Peters and the Providence School Board. The suit is seeking to temporarily close Nathanael Greene Middle School.

"We have reached a moment of urgency and emergency at Greene," PTU President Maribeth Calabro said. "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."

The complaint said there are classrooms in the middle school where students are only two feet apart from one another and that there has been a "clear breakdown in contact tracing."

Additionally, the suit alleged that nearly half the school's staff is on quarantine leave, causing the school to commingle its so-called consistent or stable groups, which are only supposed to interact within themselves under the state's school reopening guidelines.

According to the complaint, there is "a clear outbreak of COVID-19 cases" at the school as well as "a clear violation of state policies to keep students and staff safe and healthy."

The suit asks for an injunction stopping the defendants from opening the school's building until it follows safety procedures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Rhode Island Department of Health. The union noted the school has plans for providing remote learning.

Before filing the case, Calabro sent a letter to the defendants and Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo to have the school temporarily closed for in-person learning, but it was "to no avail," the suit said.

Infante-Green and Peters said in a joint statement Wednesday that the Providence Public Schools District's guiding principles for reopening have been "to maintain a safe school environment and to prioritize in-person learning," adding that students learn better in person both academically and socially.

"State health experts have made clear that, to date, R.I. public schools have not been problem areas for community spread," the statement said. "Data shows that the layers of precautions — mask wearing, hand washing, frequent cleaning and disinfecting, symptom monitoring and social distancing — are working to mitigate virus transmission."

The statement said most of the district's middle school teachers teach both in-person and virtual classes during the day and that the district made a conscious decision to limit the student population in its middle and high schools to about 50% to reduce the amount of people they have contact with.

"As with all challenges that COVID-19 has presented, we are committed to continuous improvement and the safety of students and teachers," the statement said. "We will continue to work with school leaders and state health experts as these decisions are made."

The union is represented by John DeSimone.

Counsel information for the defendants was not immediately available Tuesday.

The case is The Providence Teachers Union, Local 958, AFT, AFL-CIO v. Providence School Board et. al., case number not immediately available, in the Superior Court of Rhode Island, Providence/Bristol County.

--Editing by Stephen Berg.

Update: This story has been updated to include comment from the defendants. 

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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