Johnston schools remaining open, but staffing issues persist

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Superintendent of Johnston Schools Bernard DiLullo said that the district plans to keep schools open as long as possible, but “the feeling is at some point we’re going to hit a brick wall.”

The coronavirus pandemic has resurged in Rhode Island, with case numbers exceeding totals from the spring height of the crisis and hospitalizations quickly on the rise. DiLullo said there have been more cases within the hallways of Johnston’s schools, concentrated mostly at the high school and Nicholas A. Ferri Middle School.

DiLullo’s interview with the Sun Rise came just days before a report from WJAR’s Ashley Cullinane that high schools across the state would shift to limited in-person learning with 25 percent capacity beginning Nov. 30.

“I think you're seeing across the state many districts closing buildings,” DiLullo said. “We’re all experiencing those kinds of issues in our district where we don't have enough staff. The task of doing the investigative work is really becoming heavy on our administrators. If some people have administrators out because of the virus and that’s another stress on the district, so there’s a lot in terms of whether or not this is going to be sustainable, particularly as we get through the holiday season.”

DiLullo said he would be forced to close buildings if staffing levels continue to dip, getting to the point where it “compromises the instruction.” He said Tuesday, for example, the high school saw 20 teacher absences and narrowly avoided closing for the day.

“The administration worked very hard at covering all of those holes, just a couple more would have us close the high school,” DiLullo said. “We’re not talking about district-wide closure at this point, but certainly individual buildings and individual classrooms.”

DiLullo has said in previous interviews with the Sun Rise that staffing continues to be a major concern. He said there are “major holes” and gauged the situation as “not good.”

“A lot of our subs, I think they’re reluctant to come into school. So for example, at the middle school, we had a few teachers on one of the teams call out sick so we had to move the whole team to virtual learning for [Wednesday] and [Thursday].”

The Rhode Island Department of Health school case figures had not been updated for this week as of press time, but DiLullo acknowledged they would reflect increased numbers in the district.

He said there are between three and five cases per week at the middle and high schools, while the elementary schools only see about one to two cases. He said community spread has accounted for numerous absences as well.

“My guess is when you see the data for this week, that’s probably going to look a little higher,” DiLullo said. “We’re definitely seeing more positive cases, particularly with family members. We’re seeing a lot of positive cases with family members. So for example, a parent may test positive, which would then require a student to stay home and quarantine at home, so we’re seeing many of those types of cases.”

The district has taken on more contact tracing duties at the direction of the state, work that DiLullo said is time consuming for the already-taxed school administrators. Principals are required to fill out a couple of different forms for tracing, identifying which students were within a 6-foot radius of one who has tested positive and for how long they were in contact.

The Department of Health still issues quarantine orders, but local school leaders have absorbed “a lot of work” to get the information to that level.

“Our principals are spending a good part of their day, if not all of their day, kind of following up on those questions because again they have to meet with every person, they have to discuss what the contact has been and if they have a couple to three cases that they’re investigating, then that could take most of their day, which unfortunately takes them away from their work at hand – which is ensuring quality instruction’s happening in our buildings on a regular basis,” DiLullo said.

Some help is on the way for the winter, as Johnston and several other districts anticipate the arrival of HEPA, or high efficiency particulate air, filters. The state filled a mass order including several towns and cities at once to ensure an expedited delivery.

“We’re being told HEPA filters are coming in before Thanksgiving, which is next week, so as soon as they’re in the state will notify us,” DiLullo said. “That went through a state order for all of the districts in the state, and once they’re in they will notify us to come and pick them up. We’re renting a couple of trucks to go get those once they’re in and install them in our buildings.”

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