McKee mandates masks in all Rhode Island school districts

Updated at 4:55 p.m. on Aug. 19, 2021

GOV. DANIEL J. MCKEE issued an executive order on Thursday, mandating all school districts in the state to require students to wear masks in class, forcing remaining holdouts to get on board./ AP FILE PHOTO/STEVEN SENNE

PROVIDENCE – Gov. Daniel J. McKee issued an executive order mandating all school districts in the state to require students to wear masks in class, forcing remaining holdouts to get on board.

“As governor, I will not put students’ safety at risk,” said McKee, in a weekly COVID-19 update held on Thursday. “That’s why today I’m issuing an executive order for masks to be worn in all public schools this fall.”

McKee said most school districts in Rhode Island have already enacted their own mask mandates for when students return to class this fall, but some school systems have yet to make a decision, with several school committee votes set to take place over the next few weeks.

“The overwhelming majority of our school systems have taken a strong recommendation to require masks,” McKee said. “When it comes to the key issues on public health, Rhode Island must ensure all students in all districts are protected.”

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McKee said he’s declaring the delta variant of the coronavirus as a state public health emergency. But he also said some of his powers may be limited, without a vote by the General Assembly regarding the Emergency Management Act.

“Today I’m encouraging the General Assembly to reconvene immediately to partner with me and act as a partner against COVID-19,” McKee said. “While some of my powers under the Emergency Management Act may have been limited, I still have constitutional and public health powers that I will use to help prevent the spread of the delta. To this end, I will sign a new declaration of emergency targeting the delta variant.”

McKee was joined by R.I. Department of Health Director Nicole Alexander-Scott, who warned school districts about the consequences for other school districts around the country that did not enforce masks, leading to classroom shutdowns and quarantines in Texas and Florida.

“We want to learn from that,” she said. 

When it comes to reinstating a broader, statewide indoor mask mandate, like the one that ended in May that applied to all business settings, McKee didn’t have a clear answer on what could trigger that in terms of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths.

“I don’t think that’s determined,” McKee said. “At this point in time, we’re not going to issue any more forms of restrictions into our business community.”

The Rhode Island governor said the state has been a leader in its response to the pandemic, putting it in the eighth percentile for the amount of adults who have received a COVID-19 vaccine compared with elsewhere in the country, with 70%, or a total of 737,585 people, who have received at least one shot, while leading the nation with the least amount of COVID-19-related deaths over the last seven days. The goal is 90% of the population fully vaccinated with two shots, while that number currently stands at 63% in the state.

At the same time, people are still dying in Rhode Island from COVID-19, including four new deaths reported on Tuesday, McKee said, with 95 people hospitalized. There are still 182,000 people in Rhode Island who are eligible for the vaccine but have not yet taken the shot, McKee said.

McKee said he’s working on a vaccine mandate for state employees, but it’s a “complicated” issue when it comes to collective bargaining with labor unions. On Thursday, Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker issued a strict mandate for state employees under the executive branch to get vaccinated by Oct. 17.

“It’s not easy,” McKee said. “We want to make sure that we do it right. I expect something will become available in terms of information next week.”

McKee was also asked by a reporter about his previous statement that 90% of teachers have received a vaccination already, and thus they wouldn’t require a vaccine mandate. McKee was specifically asked where he got that 90% figure.

“That’s the data I received in the spring,” McKee said, without identifying the source. “We can confirm that.”

McKee and Alexander-Scott were also asked how they would deal with parents and community groups that have been organizing strongly against the mask mandate for students, including those who believe the facial coverings are more harmful to children than the threat of the virus. The two didn’t have a definite answer but said they would follow the science.

“In terms of how to handle people, we hope that won’t be the case because people will understand what the data and science are saying,” Alexander-Scott said. “We’ll take it as we go from there.”

McKee said he believes that the anticipated upcoming full approval of the vaccines by the Food and Drug Administration will put a lot of skepticism to bed.

“That’s going to clear the deck on that one,” McKee said.

Shortly after McKee’s weekly COVID-19 update on Thursday afternoon, leaders of the state legislature questioned his statements on the need to reconvene the General Assembly to reinstate emergency powers, granted to him under the state’s original COVID-19 state of emergency declared under former Gov. Gina M. Raimondo.

During the budget process earlier this year, the legislature reestablished its power to appropriate funds, after Raimondo’s emergency declaration allowed the governor to make unilateral decisions on major spending during the public health crisis.

“When Gov. McKee spoke with us this afternoon, he made no mention of reconvening the General Assembly, only that he was exploring declaring another state of emergency relative to the delta variant and current set of circumstances,” said Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio and House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi in a joint public statement. “We wish Gov. McKee had been more forthright in our conversations. Gov. McKee has mischaracterized the provisions contained in the budget, which he signed into law. He retains all of his executive authority relative to health and safety. Furthermore, as he believes the current circumstances require a new state of emergency, he has the full authority to issue one, and we support it. We will continue to work with the governor to protect Rhode Island residents and businesses.”

(This story has been updated, adding the last 15 paragraphs, to include further comments from Gov. Daniel J. McKee and Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott on the potential for a broader mask mandate and the potential for McKee to declare a new state of emergency.)

Marc Larocque is a PBN staff writer. Contact him at Larocque@PBN.com.

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