PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Providence Teachers Union says it has filed suit to temporarily close Nathanael Greene Middle School following staffing shortages caused by a large number of COVID-related quarantines.
The lawsuit calls for a temporary stop to in-person learning until such time as health and safety guidance can be followed including “proper distancing between students and proper contact tracing to assure there is not widespread contamination of COVID-19 amongst the students and faculty/staff.”
While the school has had a handful of known cases of the virus, dozens of staff members have been quarantined as close contacts in recent days, leading to staffing shortages that the union says pose a dangerous breach of the “stable pod” concept, with a patchwork of subs, central officer staffers and other teachers covering classrooms.
In some cases one teacher has supervised two classes at once due to teachers being quarantined at home.
Last Thursday there were 31 staff members absent at the school, with 23 in quarantine mandated by the R.I. Department of Health. But the union says multiple teachers have also called out sick while awaiting COVID results or awaiting formal contact tracing, which would leave them off the official quarantine list.
On Friday the number of absent staff went up to 35, according to the district, but only 17 that day were on the official quarantine list.
The lawsuit claims there is a “clear breakdown of contact tracing” at the middle school, claiming “there have been specific employees and substitute teachers that have been sent home to quarantine some 10 days after exposure to a COVID-19 positive student or staff.”
The suit, filed Friday, names the Providence School Board and its members, Superintendent Harrison Peters and R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green as defendants. Infante-Green took state control of the Providence schools almost exactly one year ago.
The union is asking a judge for a temporary restraining order (TRO) banning the school from being open. A hearing has not yet been scheduled. An attorney for the school district filed an objection to the TRO, which did not yet address the union’s claims.
In a statement Monday night, Peters and Infante-Green repeated their prior assertions that in-person learning needed to be prioritized.
“Academically and socially, students learn better in person than virtually,” the two leaders said. “State health experts have made clear that, to date, R.I. public schools have not been problem area for community spread. Data shows that the layers of precautions — mask wearing, hand washing, frequent cleaning and disinfecting, symptom monitoring and social distancing — are working to mitigate virus transmission.”
They said that because middle school is at 50% capacity (students are alternating between in-persona and remote days), students and staff are interacting with fewer people per day. Middle school teachers are also teaching both in-person and virtually, which “has made it possible for middle schools to switch to distance learning as a coverage option during the school day to ensure that classes are staffed appropriately.”
That appears to be referring to the fact that teachers are sometimes teaching their students virtually, even though they are in the building in another classroom. Spokesperson Laura Hart previously said the school sometimes stops the usual class rotation due to the staffing shortage.
“As with all challenges that COVID-19 has presented, we are committed to continuous improvement and the safety of students and teachers. We will continue to work with school leaders and state health experts as these decisions are made,” Peters and Infante-Green said.
The two leaders have not named any specific metric or threshold of absenteeism that would cause a school to go fully remote.
The school has had seven cumulative coronavirus cases since the start of the school year, according to the Department of Health, which does not track “active” cases. But the school district last week said it had two active cases.
Union President Maribeth Calabro — one of the quarantined Greene teachers — sent a letter to Peters and Infante-Green last week asking them to temporarily close the school building, noting that similar issues are popping up at other schools. The letter said legal action would be taken if the two did not do so, calling the situation an “emergency.”
The union has questioned why some districts, private schools and charters have temporarily moved a school to full remote learning due to COVID quarantines and the resulting staffing issues, but Providence has not. (The only in-district charter school, Times2 Academy, did revert to remote learning recently but the decision was made by charter leadership and not Peters.)
“It’s unfortunate that we had to file a lawsuit to get state and school leaders to do what’s right and safe for our students and school staff,” Calabro said in a news release. “In the state’s obsessive push to have in-school learning, it has refused to put in place the necessary COVID-19 precautions that would give our community confidence in having students learn inside schools.”
Gov. Gina Raimondo has said she does not agree with moving schools to remote learning due to COVID cases, citing the fact that the virus is circulating outside of school among remote learners.
Raimondo did acknowledge the contact-tracing delay last week, asking Rhode Islanders with customer service experience to apply to become contact tracers for the next six months.