PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Hours after the first day of school wrapped up in Rhode Island on Monday, Sept. 14, a staff member at Anthony Carnevale Elementary School found out they had tested positive for COVID-19.
It was a high-stakes moment. School had finally opened — two weeks later than planned, and six months after the COVID shutdown — and state leaders felt strongly they were prepared for safe in-person learning.
Rhode Island’s new Education Operations Center sent a rapid response team to navigate the situation, according to Capt. Laura Canavan, a National Guard nurse practitioner. It was the first such team to be dispatched since the command center – known as EdOC — was opened in late August.
The case investigation, including contact tracing, determined the employee had not been in any classrooms. The school’s top leaders – the principal and assistant principal – had to be quarantined, and the area where the employee worked was closed off. But school opened as planned on Tuesday.
Tom McCarthy, chief of staff at the R.I. Department of Education, called it a “critical event.” He said a team from the EdOC went in the next morning and spoke to staff, some of whom expressed frustration or fear that they were in school in person after a positive COVID case in the building. (Especially since, as some teachers described at the time, they were being asked to teach from their classrooms when the students were still remote.)
“People wanted to understand, ‘How come some of my colleagues are quarantined and I’m not?’” McCarthy said. “We were able to get a practitioner from the Department of Health to walk the faculty through who was quarantined and who wasn’t, and why they should feel confident in those practices.”
The principal and assistant principal are now out of quarantine and back in school, according to the district. The EdOC staff holds up that first response as a success, as they navigate the third week of school during a pandemic.
The EdOC is run by the R.I. National Guard, and is also made up of staff from the Department of Health, Department of Education and Department of Children, Youth and Families. And since members of the guard have civilian jobs, some of them who are nurses or teachers outside of military duty have been pulled in to work at the EdOC.
Guard members who briefed reporters inside the command center – located in two rooms on the fourth floor of the R.I. Department of Education building – said the 24-hour-a-day phone line has received 250 calls since the start of school, including 230 requests for information. (Of those, 203 have been completed, while the rest are in progress.)
Teams have done 43 school visits so far, though more often for meet-and-greets and training than responding to positive cases. A team was planning to visit Exeter’s Metcalf School on Wednesday, for example. A previous visit to Chariho High School garnered insights on how to handle passing time between classes.
The most common question on the hotline so far — according to 2nd Lt. Carmen Breese, who compiles the data — is for clarification on the state’s COVID-19 guidance. Schools are also calling for help with getting personal protective equipment, requesting training, and asking for help with ventilation.
On Wednesday, calls came in from schools that lost power in a storm overnight. Some decided to close while others stayed open, following ventilation guidance from those who answered the phones.
The command center also does clinical outreach and assists school nurses, and provides substitute nurses to schools upon request.
So far, there is no “widespread transmission” inside schools, Gov. Gina Raimondo said at her weekly briefing Wednesday.
There have been 160 cases total connected to the K-12 community, Raimondo said, including both in-person and distance learning. Slightly more than half of those are in the in-person learning community, according to the Health Department’s data, which is updated on Wednesdays for the prior week.
Last week, the dynamic was flipped; more students doing virtual learning had contracted the virus than the ones in school.
In addition to day-to-day operations, McCarthy said the EdOC team is looking at long-term planning including how to handle school in the winter, when open windows to promote air turnover won’t be as practical.
“We want to make sure we can sustain those best practices with ventilation as the weather gets colder,” McCarthy said. He said procuring more HEPA filters to purify the air is in the works, “so we can sustain that same level we’ve had since the beginning of the school.”