PROVIDENCE — When Dale Fraza walked into their third period class Thursday, only four of his 17 students were sitting at their desks. The other 13 were absent or quarantining because they had tested positive for COVID-19 or were a close contact of someone who had.
In their four period class, eleven students were quarantining. Six others were absent. And just seven students were sitting in his classroom.
“Almost all of my students are absent. It feels empty. Just desolate,” said Fraza, a social studies teacher at 360 High School in Providence. The district opted for a “staggered” return to in-person learning this week since the holiday break. Those students that are at home don’t have an option to “Zoom into” the classroom.
On Tuesday, which was when the district’s tenth and eleventh graders returned to school, Fraza said students received a rapid test before entering the building and then would head to their classroom. But then he started receiving phone calls from the main office, dismissing the students in his classroom that had tested positive.
“Every five or 10 minutes, another student was testing positive and being sent home,” he said. “I heard calls coming in at classrooms across the hall and over the intercom. Each time we’d hear the phone ring, we knew it was another positive case.”
In the middle of his lessons, he said he would stop to clean desks, chairs, and Chromebook laptops that had just been used by a COVID-positive student. Less than three feet away, other students were sitting at their desk, trying to learn.
Providence schools will transition to distance learning and cancel after-school activities for Friday. But not because of COVID, but “due to the expected winter storm conditions.”
Many schools across the state have decided to transition to distance learning in the coming days. But the state education department, which oversees Providence schools, aligned itself with new recommendations for schools from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday, which include shortening the isolation and quarantine duration for students and staff to five days, streamlining case investigation and contact tracing for students and staff, and waiving the requirement for a negative test result for close contacts to end quarantine.
The state took over Providence schools after a scathing report by researchers from Johns Hopkins University was released that outlined a series of recurring, disturbing issues that plagued the district. Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, a Providence Democrat, said Thursday that she saw schools across the state shift to remote learning, but not Providence Schools.
“Thank you state takeover. [The Rhode Island Department of Education has] failed miserably in protecting our most vulnerable students. I am not shocked,” she Tweeted.
But Dr. Philip Chan, a medical consultant to the state health department and professor at Brown University, said the new measures “completely reassured, as a parent myself, that our schools are safe.”
“Our priority remains to keep schools open safely,” said Chan, who has two children in school.
Providence, the largest school district in the state with about 21,000 students, decided to do a staggered return to allow for testing in collaboration with RIDE leadership, according to education department spokesman Victor Morente.
Morente said it’s up to individual districts to decide if they will transition to remote learning. And many did, including Coventry High School, Johnston High School, Blackstone Academy, Blackstone Valley Prep, the Rhode Island Nurses Institute, Veterans and Winman Middle Schools in Warwick, and Achievement First.
Morente did not answer questions from the Globe about the test positive rate among Providence school students and staff this week, but residents and parents reported long lines at testing sites while they stood out in the cold.
But according to the state health department, there were 4,366 school-affiliated cases, which include 705 positive cases among staff, identified from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1. These cases make up about 22 percent of all COVID-19 cases in Rhode Island during that time.
Among Providence Public Schools, only 29 percent of eligible students have completed their primary vaccination series and 229 students tested positive during the seven days ending on Jan. 1, according to the health department.
And the transmission in the wider community is high, according to the CDC: over 690 cases per 100,000 people were identified in the week leading up to Christmas Day in Providence.
While many parents and teachers throughout Rhode Island have called for distance learning since before the holiday break due to rising COVID cases, Fraza, a parent of two young children, said he values in-person education as being the best option for kids.
“But when you have more students out of school instead of in-school, you might as well offer distance learning,” he said. “Now these kids don’t have any option [to tune into a class]. Teachers are trying to provide work for them online, but it’s not the same. There needs to be infrastructure in place for this.”
Alexa Gagosz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.