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Is it time to close R.I. schools? One principal says yes.

State Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green tells schools to have plans by March 19

International Charter School director Julie Nora, left, and school nurse Rosa Tomlinson outside the school in Pawtucket.
International Charter School director Julie Nora, left, and school nurse Rosa Tomlinson outside the school in Pawtucket.Edward Fitzpatrick

PAWTUCKET, R.I. -- Rosa Tomlinson, a school nurse at the International Charter School, spent two days teaching the 374 elementary students how to properly wash their hands and cover their coughs and sneezes.

But Tomlinson said she doesn’t have what she needs to be safe from Covid-19, the highly contagious respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus. Because of a shortage of specialized masks, which block out 95 percent of airborne particles, Tomlinson and other health care workers are using regular surgical masks.

It worries her that, despite all the cleaning and measures to keep the school safe, it won’t be enough.

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That led Julie Nora, director of Tomlinson’s school, to come to a strong conclusion: Schools should be closed.

School nurses "are at the forefront of any kind of spread of disease in schools, and my nurse doesn’t have adequate equipment,” Nora said Thursday. “My concern is, if something should happen, nurses will get sick, and I’m concerned we could be in schools without an adequate school nurse.”

While there’s no evidence that children are particularly susceptible to Covid-19, “children are around grandparents, parents, friends, and who knows where they’ve been exposed,” Tomlinson said. “It comes into the school and within days, it spreads, because children are children.”

She added: “I can see this being a match lit, if it does come into the school.”

Colleges and universities in Rhode Island are already closing and sending their students home, but the state Department of Education, which oversees K-12 public schools, has not mandated any closures. However, on Thursday, Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green sent a letter to all school districts advising them to prepare for school closures.

Her letter made clear that closures weren’t warranted yet, but that school districts should have plans submitted by March 19 about how they will continue instruction during a prolonged closure.

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“The paramount concern for all of us is safeguarding the health of our children, our teachers, and their families,” Infante-Greene wrote. “The decision to close schools is never one that is taken lightly, but one for which we should all be prepared.”

Maribeth Calabro, head of the Providence Teachers Union, said the city’s school district was sharing information and trying to prepare for Covid-19.

“If there is merit to closing and doing extreme disinfecting of all worksites, then obviously we would be on board with that decision,” Calabro said. “Stopping the spread of the virus for the safety of all is the goal of the district, city, and state leadership, and we are willing to support in any way we can to ensure safety of all of our community -- teachers, students and staff.”

On Wednesday, Governor Gina M. Raimondo and the state Department of Health told residents that they shouldn’t attend or hold events for more than 250 people. The state Department of Education says that doesn’t apply to typical school days, where students aren’t concentrated in one place.

But Nora, the charter school principal, isn’t so sure that should be the main criteria. She looks at the shortage of equipment and tests nationwide, and the outbreaks in other states.

Closures won’t be simple. Nora said the school could use its kitchen to provide meals for students. Virtual learning is more difficult -- not all students have access to computers, or the Internet.

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The questions about what’s next are weighing on staff members like nurse Tomlinson.

“The Department of Health keeps telling us that we’re going to get the masks, just be patient. They’re telling us school closings don’t need to happen, don’t panic,” Tomlinson said. “But you look at the news, just a month ago, they said just take precautions. It’s hitting closer to home now.”


Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com