Johnston’s Winsor Hill School closed Tuesday after COVID-19 outbreak

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UPDATED: Approximately 19 cases of COVID-19 have been reported at one Johnston elementary school.

The district’s top administrator shut the school down for the day, but the Winsor Hill School reopened Wednesday.

“The pandemic has hit our schools,” Johnston Schools Superintendent Dr. Bernard DiLullo Jr. declared at Tuesday night’s School Committee meeting.

DiLullo was informed late Monday night that two staff members at the school had tested positive for the virus.

By midday Tuesday, school officials confirmed that around a dozen children had also tested positive at Winsor Hill since the school opened on Sept. 1, according to a conversation DiLullo had with the Rhode Island Department of Health (DOH).

That number climbed to 17 students testing positive for COVID-19 by Tuesday evening’s School Committee meeting, according to DiLullo.

Parent Joyce Teaway pulled up to the Winsor Hill Elementary School around 9:05 a.m. Tuesday, her back seat full of laundry.

A few cars were parked along the curb. The tiny campus was far less busy than usual at that time, for a school day.

No school employees stood outside. No signs were visible on the door.

Teaway leaned over to talk to her daughter, Abigail, a second-grader, who was sitting in the passenger seat.

“No school today?” she asked.

Teaway pulled out her cell phone and checked her voicemail.

She switched a message to speakerphone. She and her daughter listened to DiLullo’s voice.

“I missed the call,” she said.

DiLullo could be heard in the background, his message distributed via the district’s All-call School Messenger

System.

Winsor Hill Elementary was closed for the day due to a COVID-19 outbreak at the school.

Seven-year-old Abigail wore a mask, but her eyes flashed with anger and annoyance. She crossed her arms.

Still parked outside the school around 9:15 a.m., Teaway turned to Abigail.

“I guess you’re helping me do laundry,” Teaway said.

Her daughter’s eyes rolled and she slid back in her seat with a sigh.

In addition to the recorded phone message, DiLullo also distributed an email to parents.

“When I send a call out, I do an email blast as well,” DiLullo said. “The email blast comes with a Spanish translation.”

Children were due to start entering the school at 9:05; classes typically begin at 9:10 for Johnston’s elementary schools.

Previous to the start of the 2021-22 school year, the Winsor School had 372 students enrolled, and only reported 30-34 cases among students (10 to 14 among staff), since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, according to the DOH.

The school has now reached 35 percent of the previous total, in just the first two weeks back.

“There have been approximately 14 confirmed cases,” DiLullo said around noon Tuesday. Then at the School Committee meeting, DiLullo announced the case-count had increased to 17 students and two staff members testing positive.

The Winsor Hill and Brown Avenue Schools reported the highest virus totals district-wide last year, with infection rates hovering around 9 percent of the student body.

Statewide, and at many of the district’s other school buildings, the average infection rate was around 4 percent, according to DOH data.

The school principal, Amy Burns, and school nursing staff worked feverishly on contact tracing, DiLullo said.

Students and staff who were deemed having had “close contact” with those who tested positive — spending time within three feet, typically without a mask, either at lunch or in a recess setting — have been instructed to quarantine for 10 days.

After 10 days, “close contacts” can return to school with a district-specified negative COVID-19 test result.

“Our plan is to reopen Wednesday,” DiLullo said. “They did a nice job in terms of tracking down who was in close contact.”

DiLullo said he could not provide the number of students and staff who were in “close contact” with the infected individuals.

“I don’t have that number just yet,” DiLullo said. “A lot of these cases were not transmitted in the school. Often, families or family members test positive, and then children test positive after they’ve come to school.”

The rest of the town’s schools have been faring much better so far this year.

“The other schools seem to be doing OK,” DiLullo said. “One or two cases popping up here and there; but not a high number.”

DiLullo gave the School Committee an update on reported COVID-19 cases in the district’s other schools at Tuesday’s meeting: Johnston High School has had four cases of COVID-19 so far this year; Ferri Middle School, four cases; Sarah Dyer Barnes School, one case; Brown Avenue Elementary School, two cases; Thornton Elementary School, three cases; Early Childhood Center, two cases; Graniteville Pre-School, two cases.

Since the district was informed of the two confirmed adult cases late Monday night, DiLullo said all of the Winsor School’s teachers didn’t have the opportunity to send students home with laptops.

“Typically, teachers are sending kids home with their laptops,” he explained. “That did not happen because (we were informed) late last night.”

Teachers assembled paper work packets for the children who will be quarantining for the next week.

“What typically happens is parents pick them up at the school,” DiLullo said. “So far, it has only been ‘close contacts’ who have been instructed to pick up the packets.”

The School Committee had voted over the summer to make masks optional in schools. The decision was overridden by a statewide mask mandate for schools, put in place several weeks later.

“I’m grateful that there was an implementation of masking,” School Committee Member Susan Mansolillo said at Tuesday’s meeting. “Because we don’t know what would have happened if there hadn’t been.”

She also urged parents to keep children home when they’re sick.

“Parents, when your children are not feeling well, please keep them home,” she said. “Because this is the result.”

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