PROVIDENCE — By the time an e-mail from the principal at the private Saint Raphael Academy in Pawtucket, R.I., hit parents’ inboxes on Saturday night, the rumors were already flying.
A school administrator who returned from a class trip to Europe on Feb. 22 was experiencing flu-like symptoms, and students hadn’t seen him in school in the week since. Social media was buzzing. The local newspaper even briefly published and then removed a story from its website saying state officials were monitoring Rhode Island’s first potential case of coronavirus.
The initial message from principal Daniel Richard was less revealing. He told the Saint Raphael community that a staff member had returned from Europe not feeling well, and said he’d contacted the state Department of Health out of an abundance of caution.
“I shared all pertinent information with RIDOH and they did not feel it was necessary to take any further action: to include any testing or quarantine of any members on the trip,” Richard wrote in the e-mail. “I followed their protocol and guidance concerning this situation and have acted accordingly.”
But the rumors were true, and questions are being raised about how the school and the state handled the situation.
The trip along Europe’s Mediterranean coast had brought the Catholic school group in contact with the potentially deadly virus, sending waves of fear rippling through school communities here and in Massachusetts.
Shortly before 9 a.m. Sunday, the health department confirmed that a person in their 40s who traveled to Italy had become Rhode Island’s first patient with Covid-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus. Richard sent an e-mail that afternoon to the Saint Raphael community confirming that the sick man was a staff member at the school.
Hours later, Richard had more bad news: Another person who was on the Europe trip also had coronavirus. Parents later learned it was a teenager who had gone to school for three days before going home sick.
The cases kept coming. Rhode Island health officials announced that another adult chaperone, a woman in her 30s who is on the staff of Achievement First Academy in Providence, had fallen ill and was being tested — but her results came back as negative Tuesday night.
And after the Massachusetts health department said Monday that a woman in her 20s from Norfolk County had tested positive for the virus, Rhode Island health officials announced Tuesday that she, too, had been on the trip with the Pawtucket school.
The fallout has been swift. The school is closed for the week, and all 38 people who traveled to Europe with the school have been asked to quarantine themselves for two weeks.
The reaction to the first wave of coronavirus victims is being felt across the state, with state officials trying to stem fears that an outbreak is on the horizon, and schools and businesses taking precautionary measures before a full-fledged panic sets in.
Toy giant Hasbro has told employees whose children attend Saint Raphael Academy to stay home. An elementary school in East Greenwich was closed after a student’s sibling came down sick, although not diagnosed with the virus. In Providence City Hall, employees have been assigned to “doorknob duty,” wiping them down with disinfectant to ensure the highly trafficked building remains as clean as possible. Roger Williams University has canceled all of its sponsored international travel programs during spring break.
All the while, parents at Saint Raphael have been left to wonder whether the state could have acted sooner to prevent students and faculty — and by extension, their families — from being exposed. Why, they wonder, was the student who tested positive still attending school until Thursday of last week before going home ill?
Holly Taylor Coolman, a Providence College professor who has two children who attend the school, said she questions whether the health department should have stepped in once the school reported that a staff member was ill. Although the employee didn’t return to work, most of the students were back at school last week.
“I'm very aware that there is a delicate balance here,” Coolman acknowledged. “We have to take seriously the task of minimizing disease transmission, but we can't just shut everything down.”
A health department spokesman said the agency did do some “illness monitoring” at the school last week, but because the employee had not yet tested positive for coronavirus, and no one else had experienced symptoms, it did not feel the need to call for anyone to be quarantined.
The nine-day tour of Europe’s Mediterranean Coast — including northern Italy, southern France, and Spain — for February vacation was first announced by school officials last year as a response to a separate, sold-out trip to Spain scheduled for this spring. The school worked with Cambridge-based Education First, also known as EF Tours, to organize the trip, and 38 students and chaperones flew out of Logan Airport on Feb. 14.
Italy has become the European epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, and the country has now reported more than 2,500 cases. It’s unclear whether students noticed other people becoming sick while they were on the trip.
A spokeswoman for Education First confirmed that one of its tour guides for the school did fall ill, but said the person did not test positive for coronavirus.
Word that a school employee may have the disease first spread late last week, with students sharing the news on social media. Several parents say their children were aware of the school employee being diagnosed with the virus at least a day before the health department confirmed it.
“They knew who it was and were told he had the flu,” said Suzanne Arena, whose daughter attends the school. “How come we didn’t know about this?”
The spokesman for the health department said the agency has identified “the vast majority of the people with whom this student had prolonged face-to-face contact,” and “those people are at home self-quarantining.”
Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the state Department of Health, has been emphasizing that the risk of contracting the coronavirus remains low in Rhode Island.
But she has also acknowledged that this is an evolving situation. “The Covid-19 situation has been shifting greatly over the past several days,” she said Monday morning.
Alexander-Scott said that all 38 students and staffers on the Saint Raphael Academy trip to Europe were “self-monitoring at home” for 14 days. “We have a robust team of public health nurses checking in regularly with them and providing support as needed,” she said. “It’s important to know we are being very aggressive and vigilant in operating this program.”
Alexander-Scott said state health officials have dealt with a pandemic before, with the H1N1 outbreak in 2009.
“We will get through this together,” she said.
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