PAWTUCKET, R.I. — For a full year, Saint Raphael Academy had been planning the school trip to Europe.
And when 38 students and staff from the academy headed to the continent on St. Valentine’s Day, they had a lot to look forward to: visits to cathedrals and museums, tours of small villages in northern Italy, strolls down palm-lined streets on the French Riviera.
But the trip leader, Marc Thibault — the school’s vice principal for student life — wasn’t feeling well when he left. And when he returned from Europe on Feb. 22, he said he felt run down. So he stayed home from work.
Eight days later, the state Department of Health contacted Principal Daniel Richard to deliver shocking news: Thibault had tested positive for Covid-19, the respiratory illness that arises from the coronavirus.
Richard noted that the United States did not place travel restrictions on US citizens going into Italy until a week after the trip. But suddenly, a staff member at this small Catholic school in Pawtucket was the first Rhode Island resident to test positive for the virus, placing him, and his school, at the forefront of what would soon become a global pandemic.
Richard, who has been principal of Saint Ray’s since 2012, answered questions from the Globe via e-mail. He did not disclose the name of the staff member who tested positive for Covid-19. But Thibault, who has been hospitalized and in stable condition, recently spoke to The Wall Street Journal about his ordeal.
“I spoke with him earlier this week and he sounded great,” Richard said. “It was awesome to hear his voice. I can speak for the entire school community and say we all can’t wait to welcome him back into the Saints community. He is not only an outstanding employee at our academy; he is a dear friend to all of us.”
The school, which has about 500 students on a collegiate-style campus in Pawtucket’s Quality Hill historic district, has faced a trying two weeks.
In addition to Thibault, a student and a faculty member tested positive for Covid-19, health officials have said. The student and teacher went to school for several days after the trip, and those who came in contact with them were asked to remain under quarantine. The school shut its doors on March 2, and officials decided not to reopen as scheduled on Monday after the governor closed public schools for next week and asked private schools to do the same.
But Richard said the crisis has brought the school community together.
“In spite of the many challenges that the community has faced during the last 10 days, we collectively are doing quite well,” he said. “The community is taking strength from one another.”
Students and staff have had to deal with misconceptions about how people get infected by Covid-19, he said.
“Unfortunately, when there is ambiguity surrounding an important issue like this, it is often followed by misinformation and phobia,” Richard said. “During the last 10 days, many of our adults and students at our school have had to deal with irrational fears from others.”
But faith has provided a source of strength, he said.
“Being a Catholic, faith-based community and embracing the opportunity to pray for one another was so important to all members of the Saints family,” Richard said. “Praying for those affected by the virus and leaning upon our Catholic teachings enabled our community to respond from a place of empathy and unity rather than fear and division.”
Although the school has been closed, students have kept up on their classes through remote learning, he said.
“In spite of this difficult time, not one minute of student instruction was missed,” Richard said. “This occurred because our top-notch faculty embraced and properly utilized virtual learning.”
Meanwhile, school staff has been cleaning, he said.
“The academy has spent the last 10 days cleaning, cleaning, and more cleaning,” Richard wrote. “Every evening, we are having our cleaning staff bleach down the classrooms and really all parts of our campus.”
The school has placed hand sanitizer in each room and posted signs explaining proper hand-washing techniques in the bathrooms, he said.
Richard said he learned three things as his school dealt with coronavirus: First, he said, “Any organization should have a plan in place, and when a situation like this occurs they need to be able to execute that plan."
Also, communication is critical, Richard said. “You cannot communicate enough with your school members.”
And when an emergency like this happens, make sure you have a core leadership team in place ready to respond, he said. “It is not practical to think one person (or even several) would be able to handle all of the information and decisions that need to be addressed in a timely manner,” he said.
Richard said school officials have been looking forward to reopening the school on Monday.
“Having our students back on campus will be nothing short of wonderful,” he said. “The entire Saints faculty and staff can’t wait to see our students back in the classrooms.”
But on Friday, Governor Gina M. Raimondo ordered all public schools in Rhode Island to close for one week, starting Monday, as she announced that the number of Rhode Islanders with the coronavirus has nearly tripled, from five to 14. State health officials urged private schools to take the same step.
So on Friday afternoon, St. Ray’s announced that it will continue offering remote instruction.
“As a result of the governor’s press conference today and the guidance given by the Diocese, the school administration has opted to keep students at home and continue to educate them using virtual instruction, as we have been successfully implementing for the last two weeks,” the school said on its website.
The announcement concluded with a simple message: “#SaintsStrong.”