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State education board’s vote means school mask mandates

August 18, 2021 GMT

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Rhode Island’s education council has voted to reject any district’s back-to-school plans that don’t include mask mandates, essentially requiring face coverings for all K-12 students this fall, despite being told by a state Education Department lawyer that it did not have the authority to do so.

After the Rhode Island Council on Elementary and Secondary Education made its unanimous decision during a meeting Tuesday night, Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green said she will follow the directive, WPRI-TV reported.

“They’re my bosses; yes, I have to follow the council’s direction,” she said. “Basically, what was said tonight is we will take our chances with any lawsuits that may happen.”

The decision comes as the delta variant is being blamed on another wave of coronavirus cases across the state.

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Department of Education lawyer Anthony Cottone told the council before the vote that it does not have the authority to mandate masks in school districts statewide. Only the legislature by statute or the governor through executive order can do so, he said.

Democratic Gov. Dan McKee has recommended masks for schoolchildren but has resisted issuing a mask mandate, saying the issue should be left up to school districts. Many districts have already issued mask requirements.

A Department of Education spokesperson said of the school districts that have filed fall safety plans with the department, 80% have a universal masking policy.

“The administration continues to believe that the best way to get all districts to mask up and enforce those policies is to work directly with them to address concerns and support them in preparing the safest environment possible for our kids,” McKee spokesperson Matt Sheaff told the station after the council’s vote.

State Rep. Brian Newberry, R-North Smithfield, called the council’s decision “an outrage” in a tweet after the vote.

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VACCINE INCENTIVES-NONPROFITS

Another 38 nonprofits across Rhode Island have benefitted from the state’s vaccine incentive program, Gov. Dan McKee said Wednesday.

The RI Gives Vax Challenge, launched early last month, awards $10,000 grants to nonprofits that have been on the front lines of the pandemic response for every 5,000 people in the state who get a first dose of a vaccine.

More than 25,000 people in the state have received at least one dose since the program started and more than 81% of adult Rhode Islanders are now at least partially vaccinated, the governor said in a statement.

“Right now we know that every shot counts, especially when it comes to protecting ourselves against the delta variant and getting students safely back in the classroom,” McKee said.

The 38 nonprofits to benefit from the final two rounds of grants include the Boys & Girls Club of East Providence. During the pandemic, the club distributed food to children and their families, and provided free virtual and in-person tutoring.

“COVID-19 had a profound impact on the youth and families that we serve. In the early days of the crisis, our members were displaced from school, faced food insecurity due to parental job loss and struggled with the mental health issues resulting from isolation,” Executive Director Erin Gilliatt said.

The $750,000 program was funded by $500,000 from the state and $250,000 from the Rhode Island Foundation.