Gov. Gina Raimondo on Wednesday said she was "disturbed" by messaging from the White House about reopening schools, vowing to "follow the science" as her administration aims to safely return students to class this fall.
The comments come after White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said during a press briefing last week that "science should not stand in the way of" schools fully reopening for the upcoming academic year.
"We are going to get our kids back to school, we are going to make sure they are safe in school, and we are going to follow the science," Raimondo said. The Trump administration has pushed for schools to fully open for students five days per week in the fall.
The remarks also come after some educators and parents have expressed skepticism over the state's ability to safely reopen schools by the end of August.
"Don't let anybody scare you," Raimondo said, speaking to parents, students and educators. "I can't speak to what's going to happen in Washington, I can't speak to what's going to happen in the rest of the country. Here, in our communities, we're going to follow the science.
"We're going to do the hard work, the painstakingly difficult, detailed work of readying our our schools and our buses and our communities, so that when we say it's time to go back to school, we will know it is safe."
She added that science would also guide the administration "around the social, emotional, mental, intellectual needs of our kids to be in school."
The governor said there were "big challenges" associated with transportation of children, cleanliness of facilities and providing education to children with special needs, among other concerns.
She said officials would continue to speak with experts through the end of August, when Raimondo has expressed hope that classes would resume.
Earlier in the day, Raimondo expressed confidence in her plan to safely reopen the state’s schools, despite doubts being expressed by teachers, administrators and parents that the coronavirus is not under adequate control.
"I am not in any way diminishing how hard it’s going to be, how much work is going to be required," the Democrat told WPRO radio on Tuesday. "I understand they’re nervous, you know, I understand that. But we're going to put our back into it because we owe it to our kids and our teachers in order to be able to get everyone back to school and do it safely."
Robert Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association of Rhode Island, the state's largest teachers' union, doesn't see students returning to school by the end of August. He expressed concerns about ensuring social distancing in classrooms and on school buses.
School districts across the state have already submitted their draft reopening plans to state education officials, but the final decision on whether to reopen may not be made until mid-August, according to details unveiled at the state Council on Elementary and Secondary Education meeting Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Raimondo warned that Rhode Island may have to impose stricter guidelines on bars -- and possibly shut some of them down -- if social distancing guidelines aren't met amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Raimondo said her administration had observed crowding in bars and that some bars were not complying with rules outlined in Phase 3 of the state's reopening plan, which requires strict social distancing measures.
"We are not seeing what we need to be seeing," she said, adding that inspectors would be checking on bars this weekend. If improvements are not observed, the administration would consider "more stringent rules and further shut downs of bars, which I really don't want to do."
Raimondo also pleaded with residents, especially young people, to abide by limits on social gatherings, saying many cases in the state have been traced to backyard parties.
Under Phase 3 guidelines, social gatherings must be limited to 25 people.
Raimondo urged residents to continue wearing masks, saying the state was doing a "great job" but that people should not get complacent.
On Tuesday, Rhode Island reported 53 new positive cases and one new fatality. The state's total confirmed cases count is 17,986, including 996 fatalities.