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WASHINGTON (CNS) -- While school systems around the country are discussing what to do in response to the coronavirus, St. Raphael Academy in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, had to put its plans into immediate action when a member of the school community tested "presumptive positive" for a strain of coronavirus after participating in a recent school trip to Italy.
The Catholic high school building was initially closed March 2-3 for sanitizing, but the school later extended this closure for the entire week, announcing on its website that "students will be instructed at home through virtual learning." All after-school activities and sports practices also have been canceled.
A staff member in his 40s who was one of the school trip's chaperones was found to have the coronavirus March 1 by the Rhode Island Department of Health. "He is being hospitalized and prayers would be appreciated," Dan Richard, principal of St. Raphael Academy, told the Rhode Island Catholic, newspaper of the Providence Diocese, March 3.
The Rhode Island Department of Health also announced later in the day March 1 that a female St. Raphael student who traveled with the group also tested positive for the coronavirus, or COVID-19, and was resting at home with mild symptoms. On March 3, the R.I. Department of Health announced that a Massachusetts resident in her 20s, who traveled with the St. Raphael group, has also tested presumptive positive for COVID-19, and was similarly recovering at home.
The school's website announcement said it has been in "close contact with the R.I. Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention," and following their directive, students and chaperones who were on the recent trip to Europe will be out of school until March 9 on self-quarantine and self-monitoring with supervision from the state health department.
Closure of the school building was not directed by the state or CDC, the school said, but is occurring "out of an abundance of caution."
The group of 38 students and chaperones took part in a trip during the school's winter break to France, Italy and Spain from Feb. 14-22, spending one day in Northern Italy. At the time, the principal said, the CDC had not put Italy off limits for nonessential travel.
Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence tweeted March 1 that he was "very sorry to learn that a member of the St. Raphael Academy community has tested positive for the coronavirus. I extend my prayers and blessings to the individual involved and to all the members of the St. Ray's family. May God grant us healing, comfort and peace."
He also commended and thanked the Rhode Island Department of Health and the leadership of St. Raphael Academy and the diocesan Catholic Schools Office "for their prompt and prudent response to this situation. In these challenging times it's important that we all stand and work together," he tweeted.
A statement by the state's Department of Health said that all 38 people who were on the school trip will be monitored for the next 14 days.
"All three people went on the same trip to Italy," said Dr. Nichole Alexander-Scott, the state's director of health. "This is precisely why we are being so aggressive in identifying contacts, ensuring monitoring and testing people who are symptomatic."
Letters from school district officials and individual school leaders have been sent home in recent days assuring parents that current exposure to the coronavirus is low and that students should use similar precautions as they do in the flu season with frequent hand washings and staying home when they don't feel well.
Lincoln Snyder, superintendent of Catholic schools in the Diocese of Sacramento, California, wrote to parents Feb. 27 "out of an abundance of caution," saying he didn't have reason to believe the coronavirus is "an immediate threat to our schools." But he pointed out that Sacramento County Public Health officials have confirmed the first travel-related case of coronavirus involving a Sacramento resident.
"Like all area schools, we are in regular contact with Sacramento County Public Health officials, who assure the community that there is no need to change daily routines in any way. We, of course, understand that with the strong media coverage, anxieties are heightened, and our families and staff may have questions. According to public health officials, students and staff should continue their normal routines and take the same precautions they would during cold and flu season," he wrote.
Similarly, Kevin Kijewski, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Detroit Archdiocese, wrote to diocesan principals Feb. 28 urging them to update their emergency plans and develop a pandemic plan if they did not already have one; monitor daily attendance and report to the local health department if there is more than 10% absenteeism; plan ahead for extended school closures and the possibility of online options; and wipe down desks and surfaces daily.
Beyond health tips, the superintendent also asked principals to share information on social media and to monitor social media accounts as "controlling rumors and false information will help a great deal with effective response."
Theresa Kirk, principal of St Mary of the Assumption School in Brookline, Massachusetts, wrote to families of the elementary school's students reminding them if they take part in international travel, they should follow the CDC guidelines of a 14-day self-quarantine when they return.
"We have had very few cases of flu and our children and staff seem healthy. Let's keep up the great work!" she wrote.
When asked about the possibility of closing U.S. schools because of the virus, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told reporters in a Feb. 28 news conference that "every option needs to be on the table."
"There is a whole continuum of mitigation steps that one can do in the event of an epidemic, an outbreak or eventually if there were ever a pandemic situation," he added.
In the meantime, schools are employing hand sanitizers in classrooms and school buses, and urging students to follow basic steps: primarily staying home when they don't feel well.
Some school officials are making plans to provide online teaching but not all schools have that capability.
Francisco Negron, chief legal officer for the National School Boards Association, told The Associated Press that if schools are forced to close for long periods, it could impact students who rely on school meals and parents who use their schools' child care programs.
He also said his group is asking school districts to reconsider attendance awards sometimes given to students who don't miss a day of class for an entire year or semester.
"School districts may want to revisit what it means to have perfect attendance," Negron said. "We certainly wouldn't want sick kids to come to school just because their parents are shooting for that perfect attendance award."
When the students return to classes at St. Raphael Academy, the principal said there is "going to be a strong smell of bleach, which will be a good indicator that we've got everything cleaned up. We're scrubbing everything down and making certain that we're highlighting the common use areas."
He said he appreciates all the prayers and positive thoughts that have been sent to the school from as far away as Montana.
"I've been really amazed by how gracious the people from the Rhode Island area and elsewhere have been in supporting our school. That means a lot to us. We're a very faith-based community and we appreciate all the prayers and positive thoughts for our school," he said.
He also noted that "these are challenging times, but suffice it to say, we have faith in our religion, we have faith in our school, and we have faith in God that we will be stronger after we're done being tested."
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Contributing to this story was Rick Snizek, executive editor of the Rhode Island Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Providence.
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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim