The National Education Association Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers released the joint statement asking Governor Gina Raimondo to call for the end of in-person classes by November 23, ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday.

Cases of COVID-19 are surging in Rhode Island, with state officials reporting record numbers of daily positive cases last week. The increasing numbers are straining hospitals, the contact tracing program, and have prompted new restrictions, including a stay-at-home advisory. 

The unions did not specify for how long they recommended that schools be closed. The groups called for a “holiday pause,” during which they want state leaders to create a regular surveillance testing program for students and school staff, as well as continued upgrades to school ventilation systems. 

“Really talking like a three week period,” said NEARI head Larry Purtill in an interview Monday. “Thanksgiving to Christmas is the time to hit pause. We got through the first semester.

Purtill said the pause would keep teachers and students safe as COVID-19 cases surge, and give schools and districts time to prepare for the spring semester. The state has ordered more than 6,000 HEPA air filters for schools that still need to be installed, according to Purtill. The break would also provide time to get staff members out of quarantine.

Schools and districts across the state have been forced to shut down intermittently as cases pop up and close contacts must isolate. Subsequently, Purtill said, schools are facing an exacerbated substitute shortages, and teachers have been forced to take on extra work to staff in-person classrooms.

“The workload is just not sustainable,” Purtill said.

The two unions represent most public school teachers in Rhode Island, and the groups had previously called for the governor to hold off in-person learning at the start of the year. Raimondo ultimately cleared almost all districts to fully reopen for in-person learning. Providence and Central Falls were allowed to partially reopen buildings for students and teachers. 

Since the start of the school year, there have been a little more than one-thousand positive,1,000  cases of COVID-19 among students and staff learning in person, according data from the state department of health. 

Still, Gov. Raimondo has said that schools, with new rigid health protocols, do not appear to be primary vectors for the spread of the virus. She has indicated that keeping schools open is among her top priorities amid the pandemic.

Correction: a previous version of this story misspelled Larry Purtill's name, and misidentified the number of HEPA filters; 6000 have been purchased, not 600.