By DANIEL KITTREDGE What began as a plan to move two Cranston schools to full distance learning last week became a district-wide shift based on the inability of administrators to guarantee needed staffing levels, Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse told
What began as a plan to move two Cranston schools to full distance learning last week became a district-wide shift based on the inability of administrators to guarantee needed staffing levels, Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse told the School Committee on Monday.
All but four schools – Cranston High School East, Western Hills Middle School, and Orchard Farms and Woodridge elementary schools – resumed in-person instruction Tuesday following the temporary closure. Staffing concerns remained at the buildings that began the week with full distance learning, the superintendent said.
But as COVID-19 case counts continue to soar, and with the district now having assumed a key role in the contact tracing process, it seems clear more disruptions are likely going forward – and that there may come a time, in the words of School Committee Chairman Daniel Wall, that keeping school buildings open becomes “untenable.”
“We’re not trying to be heroes. We’re not trying to do things that make a great headline but are not safe,” the superintendent said during Monday’s meeting. “I assured you when we began this that if the safety of our schools came into play, I would make those hard decisions. And that’s where those decisions last week and this week have come.”
Acknowledging the move to close all buildings for Thursday and Friday of last week “wasn’t a very popular decision with some folks,” she added: “It wasn’t just one or two buildings last week. All of a sudden, those numbers were coming at us on Veterans Day, and we couldn’t get a good, accurate handle on who would be available to open those buildings on Thursday. So that’s why we really needed to take a pause.”
In an interview late last week, Nota-Masse described the events that led to the district’s two-day closure.
Initially, the communities at two schools – Orchard Farms and Cranston East – were informed on Tuesday, Nov. 10, that they would move to full distance learning for Nov. 12 and Nov. 13. In the case of Orchard Farms, the superintendent said, the cause of the shift was ongoing contract tracing related to cases among students. The Cranston East building closure, she said, stemmed from cases among staff.
As Veterans Day arrived, Nota-Masse said, issues emerged at six other schools. At that point, the decision was made for the entire district to temporarily move to distance learning through at least Nov. 17, and formal notification was issued to families and the community through the district’s social media channels.
In remarks she echoed during the School Committee meeting, Nota-Masse last week said a range of circumstances have contributed to the staffing concerns requiring building closures – and that not all absences indicate someone has tested positive for the coronavirus.
Some educators have family members in quarantine, she said, or must remain home while awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test. In other cases, an educator is tending to their own child who attends another district and is at home due to a classroom closure or quarantine.
“There are all different scenarios that explain why people aren’t able to come to work,” she said.
On Monday, Nota-Masse said that since Nov. 1, the district has had 90 educators quarantined or out while awaiting test results. Another 33 positive cases have been identified among staff. That total of 123 represents roughly 10 percent of the district’s teachers.
The superintendent also said none of the district’s schools have been closed due to large numbers of infections at this point.
“We do not have any buildings where there are, quote, outbreaks,” she said.
There have been “several situations” in which a staff member or student has tested positive, she added, requiring classrooms to be closed. She said the Rhode Island Department of Health has “kind of changed their stance” and now recommends full closure of classrooms after a positive test rather than individual quarantining decisions based on proximity.
In some cases, like at Stadium Elementary School in October and the situation that emerged last week, entire buildings have been closed, although the superintendent said that approach remains a “last resort.”
“We’re trying to give our students the opportunity to come school and learn in person, and we’re doing it to the best of our ability,” she said.
The most recent K-12 COVID-19 data from the Department of Health, which was released Nov. 12 and reflects the weekly count of positive cases through Nov. 7, shows recent cases among both the in-person and distance learning communities at multiple Cranston schools during that seven-day period.
For the in-person learning community, those include between five and nine cases among students at Cranston High School West and Orchard Farms, and fewer than five cases among students at Eden Park, Garden City and George J. Peters elementary schools. For in-person staff, fewer than five cases were reported during the seven-day timeframe at the Cranston Early Learning Center, Cranston East, Cranston West, George J. Peters, Park View, Western Hills Middle School and both Gladstone and Glen Hills elementary schools.
In the distance learning community, between five and nine cases were reported among student at Cranston East. Multiple schools had fewer than five cases, including Cranston West, Garden City, Hugh B. Bain Middle School and Edgewood Highland, E.S. Rhodes and Woodridge elementary schools. Among distance learning staff, only Stadium Elementary had reported cases, listed as fewer than five.
The Department of Health has consistently provided ranges for the K-12 case counts, rather than definitive figures for each school.
In terms of contact tracing, Nota-Masse on Monday said the district has assumed additional responsibility based on discussions with health officials last week.
The superintendent said until roughly a month ago, the Department of Health had been doing “a fairly decent job of keeping up” with the contact tracing and notification work associated with Cranston’s schools.
As cases have surged, however, Nota-Masse said the state is “really struggling to keep up with the contact tracing and notification for folks with positive cases.” That has exacerbated the challenges associated with staffing and keeping buildings operational, she said, and also raised concerns given the importance of keeping the school community “aware of positive cases.”
Through a “conversation” with the state on those issues, Nota-Masse said, Cranston and other districts were given two options – assume some of the contact tracing work in order to expedite the process, or have it remain handled through the state and “continue to just be in the queue.”
Much of the task has fallen to building administrators, Nota-Masse said. Information for the process comes through in three primary ways – direct notification from someone who has tested positive, notification from a parent that their child has tested positive, or in some cases word from the Department of Health. Through interviews, determinations are made of when a person became symptomatic and was infectious, and a list of close contacts is developed. The information is all recorded and shared with state contact tracers once they reach that particular case.
“We are not authorized and we cannot quarantine people … We’re like the investigators, if you will,” the superintendent said.
Calling the contact tracing work an “an incredibly time consuming and at times very difficult job,” Nota-Masse last week added: “To put more on principals to do this without really training or explanation how to do it I think it a lot to ask … They’re doing the best they can to keep their schools afloat.”
She said on Monday that she believes the district’s efforts have improved the situation. She said the district’s contact tracing has a notification turnaround of roughly 24 hours.
Nota-Masse on Monday also said the Department of Health will now provide a team of three dedicated staffers to work with the district.
Monday’s meeting came hours after the state’s two major teachers unions jointly called for a “holiday pause” on in-person learning across Rhode Island and a move to full K-12 distance learning by Nov. 23. The contact tracing issues were cited prominently in a joint statement from the National Education Association Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals.
“Rhode Island is experiencing record high number of cases and an overwhelmed Department of Health, despite their best efforts, is falling behind with the required contact tracing that ensures effective quarantining and overall safety of students and educators,” NEARI President Larry Purtill said in a statement. “Districts already burdened and stretched thin are not equipped, nor do they have the capacity, to take on this duty.”
“In August, NEARI and RIFTHP came together to call upon Governor Raimondo and the RI Department of Education to meet additional requirements for safety prior to the start of in-person learning and the governor responded,” RIFTHP President Frank Flynn said. “Here we are three months later in a COVID landscape that has gone beyond the original parameters put in place for reopening schools in September and has since exceeded nearly every data threshold. We have a renewed sense of urgency to move to distance learning.”
Cranston’s schools, and others across the state, also continue to grapple with substitute shortages.
Last week, Nota-Masse said the Department of Education is working with the Highlander Institute to help recruit and train substitutes for Cranston’s schools. She said the district has been told substitutes are in queue to address the district’s shortage – which she described as a “moving target” – and that employment documentation is being prepared.