Judge denies Bristol-Warren teachers union’s plea to not reopen schools in district on Monday

PROVIDENCE – A R.I. Superior Court judge denied Friday the Bristol-Warren School Association’s request to prevent the Bristol-Warren Regional School District from reopening for in-person learning Sept. 14.

Bristol-Warren Education Association and the National Education Association of Rhode Island, which represents teachers unions across the state, had filed the lawsuit late Thursday seeking a restraining order to prevent schools in the district from reopening in-person unless the schools are inspected by local fire chiefs, building inspectors, the R.I. Department of Health and the R.I. Department of Labor and Training, and that they inform the superintendent if the schools conform with state law for safety.

According to NEARI spokesperson Stephanie DeSilva Mandeville in a message Friday to Providence Business News, R.I. Associate Justice Melissa A. Long ruled in Friday’s hearing that the decision to deny the union’s request was based on affidavits provided by Superintendent Jonathan T. Brice and the R.I. Department of Education that said the district is, or soon will be, in compliance with the state’s COVID-19 guidelines.

“The Court noted that the COVID-specific reopening guidance is not included in the current official regulations,” Mandeville said. “The guidance related to reopening schools issued by the state does not have the force of law.”

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In late August, Gov. Gina M. Raimondo announced that all public K-12 school districts in Rhode Island except for Providence and Central Falls would be cleared for in-person school learning. According to the lawsuit, the Bristol-Warren School Committee voted Sept. 9 to open almost all schools in the district on Sept. 14.

However, the teachers union alleged there has been “no determination” by the state building codes standards committee, the state fire marshal, RIDOH and RIDLT that the school buildings conform to state safety regulations. In early September, walkthroughs of schools in the district by the facility readiness team revealed “numerous safety issues with the school buildings,” the union alleged, but did not state what those issues were in the suit.

Three in the Bristol-Warren district elementary schools and one middle school are scheduled to reopen to in-person learning Sept. 14, according to WPRI-TV CBS 12. One elementary school will remain closed due to cleaning after a staffer tested positive for COVID-19 and Mount Hope High School will have students in the building only once a week.

Bristol-Warren school district officials, including Brice, did not immediately respond Friday to requests for comment.

Mandeville said the union will not appeal Long’s ruling.

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at Bessette@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.