Judge denies Providence teachers’ request to close school buildings

School Updates

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Nathanael Greene Middle School will stay open after a judge denied a temporary restraining order filed by the Providence Teachers Union as part of a lawsuit challenging safety procedures in city schools.

The union had tried to revert the school — or any school in the district in a similar situation — to remote learning due to a high number of staff absences and quarantines due to the pandemic. And while the judge’s ruling focused only on the temporary restraining order, union president Maribeth Calabro said it was unlikely the teachers would move forward with the overarching legal challenge.

The R.I. Department of Education, which controls Providence schools, has filed a motion to dismiss the suit in Providence Superior Court.

“I am disappointed, but I understand what happened,” Calabro said in a news conference following the decision. “I am concerned given the urgency and the uptick of COVID and COVID-related issues within the state.”

Superintendent Harrison Peters said the judge “recognized the hardship that closing the school would impose on Providence families, specifically vulnerable populations, and urged PTU and the district to resolve any staff issues outside of the courtroom.”

Calabro said her main request for the district now is for clearer guidelines on the threshold to temporarily close a school. She argued that Greene should have reverted to remote learning when a third of the staff was absent mostly because they came in contact with someone who had COVID-19 and had to quarantine.

The unstaffed classrooms are covered by a patchwork of substitutes, other teachers and district central office staff, which the union says is breaking up the concept of stable groups, also called “pods.”

“We just didn’t feel like that was adhering with any guidelines,” Calabro said.

In an interview with 12 News on Friday, R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green said the stable pods are just one layer of mitigation, combined with mask-wearing, social distancing and improved air flow in the classrooms.

“You have to have some of those mitigations in place,” Infante-Green said. “Doesn’t mean you have to have all of them. The more you have, the better it is.”

She said Providence middle and high schools are on an A/B hybrid schedule, making it easier to cover classrooms of absent teachers without exposing substitutes or teachers to large groups of students.

Absences at Greene have also decreased. On Thursday, there were 24 staff members absent, 14 of whom were listed in quarantine. Nine of those in quarantine are teachers — including Calabro — but eight will end their quarantines and be back in school on Monday, according to district spokesperson Laura Hart.

Central High School has emerged as another school grappling with a high number of quarantines. The school had 42 staff members absent as of Thursday, with 25 in quarantine. (34 of the absent staffers were teachers.)

Calabro said the union is now focusing on Central and other schools with rising levels of quarantines, hoping the district will consider reverting schools to remote learning as needed.

“We have to be thoughtful about … when we move to distance learning,” Calabro said. “I can’t wait to go back to school on Monday … but at what point do we say, ‘Let’s take a break?”

Infante-Green said she anticipates any school closings to be case-by-case, depending on staffing levels and the job descriptions of those who are out.

“Every situation is different, every case is different,” she said. “There’s no magic number for how this works.”

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.

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