Governor Dan McKee announced Thursday that he is issuing an executive order to require mask-wearing for students and staff in K-12 schools this fall. The announcement comes after several weeks of mounting pressure on McKee to issue a masking requirement as COVID-19 cases increase and the September start of in-person classes draws nearer. 

“As Governor, I will not put student safety at risk,” McKee said Thursday. “I want to be crystal clear, all students will be wearing masks in September.”

McKee and Rhode Island  Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green announced earlier this summer that all schools will be expected to return to in-person classes, and that districts will not need to provide the same level of online instruction, as was required last year.

The CDC has already issued guidance recommending “universal” masking policies in schools. 

This week, the department of health issued a letter to districts urging them to craft reopening plans that included mask mandates. On Tuesday, the state Council on Elementary and Secondary Education voted to give the education department the power to reject reopening plans that did not.

Before the governor’s announcement, masking policies were left to individual district leaders and school committees across the state. McKee said many were already set to implement masking mandates. 

“The overwhelming majority of our school systems have taken a strong recommendation to require masks, and many more of our remaining systems are prepared to take a vote to require a mask over the next few weeks,” McKee said.

School reopening plans, which must now include the masking requirement, are due to be submitted to individual district leaders and school committees across the state by the end of this month.

Over the last several weeks, the state has seen an uptick in COVID-19 cases with the spread of the contagious Delta variant. On Thursday, the state reported 314 new COVID cases, 95 hospitalizations and four fatalities. Rhode Island’s community transmission rate is listed as “high.”

“It no longer works to say, ‘one person can mask and vaccinate and the other person cannot,'” said Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott Director of the Rhode Island Department of Health. “When you have pockets of unvaccinated or unmasked populations, that overflows and impacts the areas where people are vaccinated.”

About 70 percent of the state’s population eligible to receive the vaccine has received at least one dose. But McKee said more than 180,000 eligible residents have yet to receive a shot.

Teachers are expected to begin heading back into schools for professional development in the coming weeks, followed soon after by students for the official start of the year.

“If you are 12 years and older and have not gotten vaccinated, we need you to get your first dose as soon as possible in order to be ready for school,” said Infante-Green, who added that there are vaccination clinics available in every public school district in the state. 

McKee also called upon the Rhode Island General Assembly to reconvene to restore some emergency executive powers. McKee also plans to sign a new emergency declaration related to the new threat posed by the Delta variant. 

In a joint statement released Thursday afternoon, House Leader Joseph Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said they were surprised by the Governor’s request, but added:

“[The Governor] believes the current circumstances require a new state of emergency, he has the full authority to issue one, and we support it.”