COVID-19: One Year Later

As we mark one year since COVID-19 arrived in Rhode Island, 12 News has special reports-- they’re stories of heartache, heroes and hope.

Teachers who are soldiers help guide Rhode Island through pandemic

COVID-19 One Year Later
12 on 12: Student Setbacks & Successes

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — When the pandemic hit in March of last year, Exeter-West Greenwich music teacher Christyn Marcotte had to figure out how to teach her elementary school’s 200 students remotely.

“All of a sudden I was homeschooling my kids,” Marcotte said. “The stage was no longer safe to perform, and I had to switch to distance learning with my school.”

It’s not easy to sing or play instruments together when you’re not actually together, after all. Marcotte landed on creating videos — sometimes featuring her own kids — with engaging songs to send to her students.

“It wasn’t the same as just being in the classroom,” she said.

Soon, however, Marcotte had a new assignment. The music teacher is also a soldier in the R.I. National Guard, a job that typically entails weekend guard duty and playing trombone in the 88th Army Band.

Sgt. First Class Marcotte was put on COVID orders, first working at T.F. Green Airport advising travelers about quarantining, then helping the Department of Health conduct contact tracing.

But over the summer, she was called up for a task tailor-made for a teacher.

The mission was to help start a new central command center aimed at getting schools back open in the fall, and supporting them with every pandemic-related need.

“I saw it as an opportunity to be a voice for elementary school teachers,” Marcotte said.

Eventually, it was called the Education Operations Center — or EdOC — located inside the R.I. Department of Education and run by the Guard. When school opened, rapid response teams were dispatched to schools with COVID cases, while others manned phone lines 24 hours a day, answering questions about contact tracing, personal protective equipment and quarantine rules.

The EdOC has evolved, with roughly two dozen Guard members working there in a given week. When the weather got colder, the EdOC was integral in ordering thousands of air purifiers and delivering them to classrooms so teachers could close the windows.

Most of the 3,000 soldiers and airmen in the R.I. National Guard have full-time civilian jobs in occupations such as police officers, construction workers or nurses. But only a small handful are teachers, according to Captain Mark Incze, a public information officer. Their expertise was suddenly key to an enormous mission.

“I didn’t outrank anybody in that room, but when it came to K-12 community I really had a voice,” Marcotte said. “I’m extremely grateful for the leadership at RIDE as well as the National Guard for giving me an equal seat at the table.”

Sgt. First Class Dennis Mendes, a science teacher at Cranston High School West, was also called to work in the EdOC after a stint serving COVID patients housed at the Wyndham Hotel.

Lately, Mendes has been helping teach nurses and school administrators how to administer the BinaxNOW rapid COVID test.

“I firmly believe that the heart of a teacher is to not only just teach, but to also instruct and help other people,” Mendes said. “And that’s kind of what I’m doing here. It’s just I don’t have papers to correct when I go home.”

12 News attended one of Mendes’ classes earlier this month at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence, where he and Army Public Health Nurse John Pizzo demonstrated how to administer the test, and then held a sit-down class on protocols from what equipment to wear while swabbing to how to store the antigen tests.

The guard has also gone to schools in person to hold COVID testing events at schools since the second semester began.

Mendes — who has been a teacher for 29 years — plans to take some lessons he’s learned during his pandemic mission back to the classroom.

“It’s one thing to teach biology, but I’ve learned a whole different aspect from the team that I work with now about the application of it, and how it works in the medical field,” he said.

The EdOC is expected to stay open as long as it’s needed, likely at least through the end of the school year. And while Mendes says he loves the work, he’s looking forward to getting back to his students.

“I do miss teaching,” Mendes said. “I can’t wait to get back into the classroom.”

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook

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