Packets of schoolwork await students outside the main entrance doors.
The grounds were quiet, except for the helpful voice of a school office employee talking through a slightly opened window.
Sarah Dyer Barnes Elementary School in Johnston has been closed for the week after a significant COVID-19 outbreak.
Barnes Principal Jill Souza said the school, at last count, had 23 positive cases (15 students and 8 teachers/staff). She also said several staff members have been hit hard by the virus.
“Some members of our staff are very ill,” Souza said Tuesday. “As a leader, I want to keep everyone safe.”
Souza distributed a statement to parents, guardians, staff and faculty.
"After reviewing all data on recent cases and infection rates from the past 24 hours at Barnes School and in an effort to keep all students, faculty, staff, and families safe, I am suspending all in-person learning and activity for all classrooms at Sarah Dyer Barnes School," Souza wrote. "Unfortunately, the school cannot sustain in-person learning due to the high percentage of students out and staff shortages. This guidance is based on existing research, public health recommendations, current policies, and input from the RIDOH.”
“Students will have access to work packets and their teacher’s Google Classroom where work will be posted by classroom teachers who will be checking in with students throughout the day,” the principal’s message continued.
“This temporary classroom closure starts (Dec. 14) and continues through Friday (Dec. 17) for all children/students and staff/faculty from all classrooms,” Souza wrote.
Students in Grades 3-5 who were in school last Friday, took Chromebooks home already.
“If your child was not in school today or in Grades K-2, the school will call you tomorrow to set up a time to come to pick up the Chromebook,” Souza wrote.
“The estimated return to in-person learning for students is Monday, Dec. 20, 2021, we will update you if this status changes,” Souza concluded. “We encourage you to watch for all symptoms of COVID-19 and we suggest that if you or anyone in your family are experiencing one or more of the following: fever, cough, loss of sense of taste and/or smell, shortness of breath, or fatigue to schedule a COVID-19 test immediately. Lastly, thank you for your patience and support, it is truly appreciated.”
According to the response to an emailed request for comment, Johnston Schools Superintendent Dr. Bernard DiLullo Jr. is “not in the office this week and (has) limited accessibility.”
He referred questions to Assistant Superintendent Julie-anne Zarrella.
“Every sniffle is a worry,” Zarrella said Wednesday. “I have parents who don’t want to send their kids to school right now. And I have parents who have to send their kids to school. It’s our priority to keep our staff and kids healthy. Our nurses are working extremely hard.”
Souza watched a subtle rise in COVID cases in the school immediately following Thanksgiving.
On Monday, Nov. 29, two students tested positive, she explained. By mid-week, a teacher tested positive, and then three or four more students by the weekend. By the next week, the number of confirmed infected students and staff had climbed to 14.
“It was a big jump,” Souza said. Rigorous contact tracing began.
Prior to closure of the school, the principal watched enrollment decrease by 35 percent (around 90 percent of the school’s 283 students were absent; kept home by parents or quarantined).
“Due to the cluster at Barnes, the DOH has stated that anyone with one symptom is now required to stay home,” Zarrella wrote in an emailed response to questions on Tuesday. “Our determination to make these changes are based on data and the advice of the RIDOH. If we need to close a classroom, it is due to the high number of positive cases, close contacts, and/or staff shortages. Teachers who are able to work from their classrooms (have not tested positive and are not quarantined), are not interacting with other staff members, but will remain in their room throughout the school day, and will check in with their students periodically.”
Other schools in the district have been struggling with rising cases of the virus, however Barnes has been hit recently in recent months. Winsor Hill Elementary dealt with an outbreak early in the school year, but only closed for one day after more than 20 cases surfaced there.
“All of our school sites have been impacted, but not as severely as Barnes,” Zarrella said. “All schools experience new positive cases daily. Ferri continues to struggle with staff shortages, and the ECC is another school that has had to make adjustments to the learning.”
Through it all, school staff has been working hard to provide a safe, stable school environment. The virus, however, has made an already unprecedented situation more difficult.
“As you can imagine this has been extremely stressful for administrators, nurses, staff and teachers,” Zarrella said. “We do our best to keep everyone safe as that is our top priority, but schools cannot shoulder sole responsibility. We need everyone's help especially now during the winter and holiday season.”
The school closure was primarily linked to the lack of staff (with several teachers out sick) and extreme lack of substitute teachers.
“The decision to do what we did (close Barnes), was based on the staff shortages there,” Zarrella said Wednesday. “The teachers who are not ill are teaching. Some are quarantined and teaching at home. Some are not quarantined, and teaching from their classrooms. Everything we’ve done has been with state guidance.”
This story will be updated further as more information becomes available.
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