Before the announcement Monday, school committees in Pawtucket, Cumberland and Warwick had already voted to remain largely online to start the year. That appears unlikely to change. 

In a message sent to families in Warwick this week, Superintendent Philip Thorton wrote that the district will “move forward on plans” to begin the year with distance learning. Three school buildings in the district are expected to open to accommodate in-person learning for early childhood and special education, as well as some vocational programs. All other students are set to begin the year online. 

In Pawtucket, only pre-K and Kindergarten students along with special education students will return to schools for in-person learning.

“I voted as I did because above all I have a responsibility to provide the safest educational environment possible,” said Jay Charbonneau, chairman of the Pawtucket School Committee, before Monday’s decision from state leaders. Charbonneau supported the plan to keep most students in distance learning. “I will always vote for what I believe is the safest.”

“The Pawtucket School Committee is reaffirming our reopening plan,” the district administrators wrote in a statement released after Raimondo’s Monday press conference. 

The announcement Monday now places these districts at odds with the state, and they could face legal or financial challenges as a result. 

During her announcement Raimondo essentially extended the expectation for in-person learning by a month. Schools have four weeks from the start of classes to get the students back into buildings, as everyone gets used to new policies and protocols. In the meantime, a state team will be conducting an inspection of every single public school building in the state to make sure facilities are ready to accept students and staff. 

Districts can move at their own pace in the coming weeks, but Raimondo made it clear she expects students and teachers in most buildings by mid-October. 

I can't commit to October 13th as of right now,” said Denis Collins, a member of the Cumberland School Committee. Collins voted to keep students online to start the year, and says he hopes to get students back into buildings this year. But he stresses it should be up to the districts to dictate the timeline. 

“We’re of the legal opinion that we can operate autonomously,” Collins said, “But we don't want it to be a power struggle between the governor's office and Cumberland. We want the same things.”

However a struggle already seems to be forming. Raimondo has been frank about her disappointment with those districts that have voted to remain online. 

“I think it’s terrible,” she said during her Tuesday press conference. 

The state doesn’t appear to have much authority to compel districts to follow their lead. Raimondo mentioned that federal school funding, much of which flows to the districts through the state Education Department, could be affected. And Raimondo has said that local reopening decisions could open them to litigation on behalf of parents and students who feel the district is not providing an adequate education.

“I found the Governor's comments disturbing,” said Cumberland School Committee member Mark Fiorillo, who voted to keep schools closed, referring to her comments on the possibility that students or parents could sue districts to reopen. 

Prior to Monday’s announcement teachers were divided over returning to schools, and likely remain so, said Larry Purtill, director of the National Education Association Rhode Island, one of the state’s teachers unions.

There's still a lot of anxiety out there and concern about returning,” said Purtill. “I think some districts are probably closer to being ready to return than others.

NEARI and the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers, joined to demand the state recommend a full return to online classes this September, saying no in-person lessons could truly be safe. 

Now that a statewide decision has been made, the concerns may transfer to individual districts.

“If there's a local [that] thinks they're ready to go, we’re going to help,” Purtill said. “If there's another local that says, ‘No, we're not ready to go,’ then we're going to push back really hard.”

Two districts, Providence and Central Falls have not been cleared by the state to reopen fully to students. Instead those districts will partially reopen. Providence administrators announced Wednesday that elementary schools will adopt a staggered reopening, and other grades will work online, or split their time between the classroom and home. 

“The governor’s decision to reopen school buildings, at least in part, is irresponsible,” said Maribeth Calabro, the head of the Providence Teachers Union in a statement Monday. 

The state and the union are currently in negotiations for a new contract, which expired at the end of August. 

Purtill says the union will be observing the rollout of reopenings in the first weeks, and plans to push for more union involvement in the process. 

“The last thing I want to see would be a statewide strike, but I don't rule anything out because who knows what a month from now looks like,” said Purtill.

Editor's note: Providence schools will now stagger reopening for elementary schools. This story has been updated to reflect the change.