The Rhode Island Council on Elementary and Secondary Education voted unanimously Tuesday to direct the Rhode Island Department of Education, or RIDE, to reject local school reopening plans that do not include mask mandates for students and teachers. 

The council is part of the state Board of Education.

Earlier this summer, the state education department announced that schools should return to fully in-person classes, and that mask requirements would fall to local districts to hammer out. School reopening plans were set to be submitted to RIDE this month. 

But since the spread of the Delta variant, and the state’s uptick in COVID-19 cases, state leaders have come under new pressure to announce a mask mandate for students and school staff. Because the Governor’s office has not mandated mask requirements in schools, it is unclear how the board’s decision could come into conflict with local choices about mask mandates.

“Some things go beyond local control and local politicians,” said Larry Purtill, Presidents of the National Education Association Rhode Island and a member of the state Board of Education. He added that the CDC has already issued guidance recommending universal indoor masking for schools this fall. 

During the meeting RIDE officials said of the plans submitted so far, about 80 percent include masking requirements, according to Purtill.

“Tonight’s vote by the council shows they are aligned with what the Governor said earlier at his press conference today —that by the time school opens this year, all students will be wearing masks,” said Matt Sheaf, a spokesperson for Gov. Dan McKee in a statement. 

“While all options remain at the Governor’s disposal, our team will continue to reach out to the remaining districts, many of which are taking up this issue over the next week.”

Earlier this week, the RI Superintendents Association and the RI Association of School Committees signed onto a letter to the Governor’s office asking the administration to allow RIDE to disapprove reopening plans that did not include mask requirements. 

Purtill said members of his union are largely in favor of required face coverings in school.

“‘I’d much rather have to wear a mask than go to distance learning,’” Purtill said he’s been told. “And that’s the alternative here.”

Correction: a previous version of this article misspelled Larry Purtill's last name.