Only one of the three students ultimately tested positive, but following that scare, Milisauskas added another layer of safety checks. Previously, the school took temperatures and the bus drivers asked students questions about their health before they boarded; now Milisauskas also had the students come to the cafeteria upon arrival, where the school nurse and some of the most Covid-cautious teachers, who knew the students well, also went through those questions, more thoroughly, while also assessing the students for signs of illness. Of the handful of teachers who tested positive at the school since September, none were traced back to in-school transmission. And fewer than five students in quarantine ultimately tested positive, Milisauskas says — though even those students also had other close contacts who were positive at the time, making it just as likely that they had caught the virus outside of school.
As the school year wore on, experiences requiring on-the-spot problem-solving became more and more common, as teachers and administrators were forced to scramble to adjust to more and more positive cases that called for the quarantining of teachers. The state Department of Health fell so far behind on contact tracing that it enlisted school nurses to help with that work, with many of them making calls until late at night. Rather than waiting for contact tracers or overworked nurses to help determine who would and would not stay home, schools solved the problem by flipping classrooms to remote learning on some occasions when someone in the classroom was known to be positive; depending on how many students were found to need quarantining, the class would either resume in-person or stay remote.
Many days at many schools went on with little interruption; but at times, at schools with extensive quarantining, what students were experiencing did not exactly fit anyone’s idea of what in-person learning should be; what they were being offered would better be described as “not-at-home learning.” At Nathanael Greene Middle School, also in Providence, when there were not enough teachers, the principal, Roy Sermons, sometimes moved two pods whose teachers were out to a large gym so that a third teacher, sometimes one who was part of the district’s entirely virtual program, could be called in to oversee all the students. In a single space, 30 kids would be Zooming with one teacher, 30 with another, while the on-site teacher tried to keep an eye on 60 restless middle schoolers as she was also conducting class via Zoom with her own students elsewhere. The union filed suit requesting that the school be closed for safety reasons. The judge rejected the suit.
In December, an executive order from the governor allowed for educators in retirement to fill in as substitutes for more than 90 days without losing pension benefits. Even apart from the issue of staffing, the erratic nature of moving in and out of remote learning was, in many classrooms, taking a toll on any semblance of routine. Caroline LeStrange, a schoolteacher at Alan Shawn Feinstein Elementary School at Broad Street, tested positive for Covid on Dec. 2, which meant that all her students were out of school for two weeks. A gym teacher at the school who rotated in to five different classrooms was a close contact of someone who tested positive, and the school quarantined all five classrooms pending the results of a Covid test, including LeStrange’s, adding another several days to the amount of school her first graders missed. Several children in her class had siblings who were exposed to other students or teachers who tested positive, which meant that those children missed yet more days in school. The students — many of them the children of immigrants, many of them qualifying for free lunch — struggled with the quick changes in scheduling when they arose. She could access her students’ computers, watching parents trying and failing to log their students on to the required application, eventually tiring of LeStrange’s repeated efforts to coach them through the process in a language they did not understand. On some days when she tried to run a Zoom class, only three students showed up. Those students who were able to get online, with the help of the day care they attended, wrote her notes: “I miss you! I love you!”
Superintendents and their staffs were trying to reconcile, for teachers and administrators, competing fact patterns that were emerging. On the one hand, cases across the state were starting to rise and were only expected to get worse after Thanksgiving; administrators were exhausted by the stress of scrambling for coverage and making quick decisions about whether or not to flip a classroom to remote, sometimes the night before families expected to send their students to school. On the other hand, with every passing week the district was seeing more reassuring evidence that student and teacher transmission was low — and that, although teachers were stressed, they were rising to the occasion and managing to keep the doors open.
On Nov. 18, with statewide positive test rates at about 6 percent, Raimondo announced that for a finite period — she hoped no more than two weeks — high schools could drop to 25 percent capacity starting Nov. 30. A few weeks later, Olayinka Alege, an administrator who oversees Providence middle and high schools, received a text from an anxious high-school principal at a school with roughly 1,000 students. “Almost 50 cases, now in the janitorial staff,” it read; the number referred to the total of students and staff members who had tested positive since the start of school. When the two men spoke, the principal explained how heavily the burden of keeping the school open weighed on him, how responsible he felt: Was having the students keep coming even the right thing to do? They talked briefly, but even then, the principal asked Alege to call back later that night, just so they could go over the facts one more time: The high school was safer than ever, now that it had dropped down to 25 percent capacity; they knew that the cases traced back to schools were low; they knew that schools provided structure that protected children from taking health risks. Alege says he understood that the teacher, like others, occasionally needed that reassurance so he could “put his head on the pillow at night knowing he is doing the right thing for kids.” The principal’s school, like every other in Providence, stayed open until Dec. 20, when the district temporarily switched to remote learning just a few days before the start of winter break.
At the end of the first semester, the outcomes for Providence students who attended school in person were far from ideal: 22 percent of all in-person learners had at least one incomplete in a class. But the number was even worse for virtual learners, 37 percent of whom had at least one incomplete. School openings also proved important for public health, statewide: Regular immunization rates plummeted last spring but largely rebounded by October, a function, quite likely, of the requirement that students be vaccinated before returning to class. The same was true of lead screenings, which are required for kindergarten attendance.