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Teachers decry decision to keep school open with dozens of quarantines

Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — About a third of the teachers at Nathanael Greene Middle School were absent on Thursday, with 18 out of the 25 in quarantine because they were a close contact of someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

When you take into account the entire staff, 31 people who work at the school were absent Thursday, with 23 of them listed in quarantine. It’s possible that some of the other eight absences are also COVID-related, with teachers either staying home waiting for test results or waiting to be officially ordered into quarantine by the R.I. Department of Health as contact-tracing is underway.

Yet the school remains open, patching together coverage of classrooms with some substitutes, other teachers covering each other’s classrooms and even staff from outside the school coming in to help, according to Maribeth Calabro, a teacher at the school and the Providence Teachers Union president.

Calabro is one of the Greene teachers in quarantine after she was notified Monday night that she had been in close contact last Friday with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. She was in a cohort of 14 staff members who had to go into quarantine for that one case, she said in an interview with Target 12.

New data provided by the Providence Public School District on Wednesday night lists Greene as having two “active” staff cases and one student case right now.

But it’s the large number of quarantines — not necessarily a big outbreak of virus — that has led the teachers union to call for certain schools to be remote.

“The quarantining ends up being the collateral damage, if you will,” Calabro said. “We’re at a skeleton crew.”

She said one of the solutions to the staffing shortage has been the combining of two classes with one teacher, with the whole group moved to a larger space such as an auditorium or cafeteria.

“In press conferences we talk about how they’re managed settings and stable pods and everything’s fine in the schools and they’re safer in schools,” Calabro said, referring to Gov. Gina Raimondo briefings. “Well they might be safer in some schools, but they’re not not safer in the schools with all of this stretching folks to the limit and co-mingling of pods.”

Multiple other Providence schools have a large number of staff in quarantine right now, according to the data provided by the district.

Mount Pleasant High School has 18 staffers including 15 teachers on quarantine, with three active cases in the school; DelSesto Middle school has 17 staff on quarantine including 10 teachers, with two active COVID cases in the school; Juanita Sanchez Educational Complex has 13 quarantines and one positive case; and Central High School has 10 staffers on quarantine, nine of whom are teachers, with two active COVID cases in the school.

Calabro said some teachers in quarantine are remotely teaching their students who are in classrooms in person, but another teacher has to supervise the classroom while simultaneously using their laptop to remotely instruct their own students. (Middle school students in Providence are on a hybrid schedule where they alternate between in-person and remote learning on an A/B schedule.)

School district spokesperson Laura Hart says because of that hybrid schedule, there are only half the usual number of kids in school each day, making it a bit easier to cover classes.

“For additional coverage, we call on substitutes and, at times, we have network staff from central office assist,” Hart said in an email. “When necessary, we limit the student rotation among classrooms and leverage technology to deliver lessons from different subject experts.”

“At present, these accommodations have made it possible for the district to continue to hold in-person classes at Greene, despite the high staff absenteeism,” she added.

She did not say whether there is a specific metric or threshold for when the school would go remote.

Providence’s decision not to revert to remote learning in any school stands in contrast with multiple other school districts, private schools and charter schools that have temporarily gone to remote learning because of COVID cases or quarantines before going back to school in person.

Perhaps the starkest contrast is with Times2 Academy, the only charter school that is part of the Providence Public School District, but whose school leadership makes independent decisions about opening or closing. The teachers there are part of the Providence Teachers Union.

Times2 reverted to remote learning temporarily last week following five cases of COVID-19, a measure taken as the Department of Health was still conducting contact tracing.

“To ensure the health and safety of the school and its community, this pause allows the school to mitigate the concern,” Elementary Principal Christianne Fisher said in an email.

In a letter home to families, Times2 Academy board chair Jasmin Blackmar said the school was complying with a “mandate” from the Department of Health. But Department of Health spokesperson Joseph Wendelken said no such mandate was issued, though the Health Department supported the school’s decision to go remote.

“We work with schools and talk to school leadership about each individual situation, so I am not surprised that some of them are citing us in their decisions,” Wendelken wrote in an email. “We would ask a school to close if we were seeing widespread transmission in the school. We have not had to do that yet. The situation that would result in a school going remote is when the number of people on quarantine prevents a school from functioning normally. In a few of these instances, we have supported schools’ decisions to hit pause for a few days.”

Calabro applauded the Times2 decision, which she said also leads to frustration that Providence Public School leaders are not taking the same measures. The district is controlled by the state and led by Superintendent Harrison Peters.

“It’s extremely frustrating,” Calabro said. “Our teachers are feeling like they’re being treated disparately.”

Schools such as La Salle Academy, Barrington High School, Blackstone Valley Prep, Cumberland High School and others have reverted to remote learning temporarily so far this school year, sometimes with just one or two positive COVID-19 cases in the school.

While speaking to members of the Providence City Council earlier this week, the superintendent said he gets an absence report each morning and makes decisions about which schools are at high risk for a staffing shortage.

“What we’re asking ourselves is, do we have ample adults so that kids can have a day of learning?” Peters said. He said classrooms are sometimes being filled by central office workers or retired teachers.

“In-person learning matters,” Peters said. “We try to protect as much as we can in-person, so we have been able to have folks go out and fill in the gap when we have people who are out for various reasons.”

Providence has closed individual classrooms for cleaning due to cases, and sends students and staff into quarantine if they are deemed close contacts.

R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green has also been outspoken about the importance of keeping kids in school. In an interview Tuesday with 12 News, she said the decision to close schools was happening on a case-by-case basis.

“The Department of Health has not closed down any school,” she said.

No specific metric has been named by the Health Department, RIDE or the governor for closing a school.

Asked Wednesday why some schools temporarily go remote while Providence schools do not, Raimondo said a couple of COVID cases should not close a school.

“The decision to close Cumberland or any other school, that wouldn’t necessarily have been our recommendation,” Raimondo said at her weekly briefing. “In many cases we urge the school to go ahead and stay open. There’s no need to close if somebody tests positive.”

Providence has 51 “active” cases right now among 23 schools, according to the data provided, which does not include those who had the virus earlier in the school year and have recovered.

There are at least 159 staff quarantines across the district as of Wednesday.

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

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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