PAWTUCKET — The principal of the Catholic high school where Rhode Island’s first presumptive cases of coronavirus disease 2019 were identified on March 1 — following a student enrichment trip to three European countries — said Tuesday that students are continuing their education online while the school is closed for cleaning this week, and called for prayers for the staff member currently hospitalized with the illness.
Dan Richard, principal of St. Raphael Academy, said in an interview Tuesday with Rhode Island Catholic that a staff member who served as one of the chaperones on the three country trip is the first Centers for Disease Control confirmed positive case of COVID-19, first identified Sunday by the Rhode Island Department of Health.
“He is being hospitalized and prayers would be appreciated,” Richard said for the man, who is in his 40s.
Late Tuesday, the R.I. Department of Health advised the public that a Massachusetts resident in her 20s, who traveled with the St. Raphael group to Europe, has also tested presumptive positive for COVID-19, and is recovering at home.
The R.I. Department of Health first announced Sunday that a female St. Raphael student who traveled with the group also tested positive for COVID-19, and as of that day was resting at home with mild symptoms. As of Tuesday, CDC confirmation is still pending on her presumptive test results, and the R.I. Department of Health reports that she is recovering well.
Another individual, a woman in her 30s who does not work at St. Raphael Academy but who traveled with the group as a chaperone, was being tested Sunday for the coronavirus.
Richard said that health officials are monitoring the conditions of all who traveled with the group and will act accordingly should anyone else test positive for the illness.
“The R.I. Department of Health is monitoring the individuals who went on the trip and will make appropriate decisions depending on the outcome of the monitoring,” Richard said.
Bishop Thomas J. Tobin tweeted March 1 his sorrow at learning that a member of the St. Raphael Academy community has tested positive for the coronavirus and was hospitalized.
“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 said in a tweet.
The bishop also commended the Rhode Island Department of Health and the leadership of St. Raphael Academy, a diocesan Catholic school, as well as the 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.
The group of 38 students and chaperones departed from Boston on Friday, Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, on an eight-day cultural trip, with a language component, to France, Italy and Spain. The trip was open to all St. Raphael students.
The group returned from Barcelona on Saturday, Feb. 22.
When the group embarked on the trip, the spread of coronavirus throughout northern Italy — where it has been most prevalent in that country so far — was not yet squarely on the radar of health officials.
“At that time, there was nothing about Italy as far as being a hotspot [to contract the coronavirus through widespread community transmission]. The CDC didn’t put it off limits (for non-essential travel) until the 28th of February,” Richard said.
He said the group spent one day in northern Italy during their European tour.
On Sunday, during a press conference in which the first presumptive positive COVID-19 case was announced, Dr. Nichole Alexander-Scott, the state’s director of health, said that Department of health was coordinating closely with the hospital where the first patient testing positive for COVID-19 is being treated and that all infection protocols are being followed as the remaining members of the group self-monitor their symptoms at home for 14 days with public health supervision.
The members of the group have been instructed not to go to school or work and to remain at home for 14 days.
“All three people went on the same trip to Italy,” said Dr. Alexander-Scott of the three identified as having been tested for the coronavirus. “This is precisely why we are being so aggressive in identifying contacts, ensuring monitoring, and testing people who are symptomatic.”
Dr. Alexander-Scott said Sunday that the general level of risk for Rhode Islanders is still low, although it is the responsibility of everyone to help prevent the spread of viruses, just like the flu.
“It is very important that people wash their hands regularly, cover their coughs and sneezes, and stay home if they are sick,” she said.
Richard said that a cleaning crew is working all this week to thoroughly disinfect the school to prepare for the return of the students.
“When the students get here there’s 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,” Richard said.
Although the student body is at home all this week, they are not missing out on instruction.
When each of the school’s 515 students began as freshmen, they were issued a laptop computer that they use regularly to interface remotely with their teachers and any lesson plans prepared by them. This is especially useful during teacher professional days or in times of inclement weather so that no instruction time is lost.
“We have had virtual days here for the last three years,” Richard said. “Two or three days a year have been professional development days. While we’re doing our development, they’re doing their learning.”
Richard 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.
Superintendent of Catholic Schools Dan Ferris shared Principal Richard’s call for prayers for those members of the St. Raphael family affected by this illness.
“This is obviously devastating for the St. Ray’s community,” Ferris said on an interview Monday with Rhode Island Catholic.
“We need a prayer campaign right now to beg the Lord’s mercy, and we want to see full recovery. We want to make sure that the individuals that have been affected are restored to full health and rejoined to their family — their biological families but also to their school family. That’s what we’re looking forward to, that’s what we’re praying for, and that’s what we hope other people will join us in — that they will rally with us in prayer for the school community right now.”
Ferris said that all Catholic schools in the diocese have been sending out notifications to their families reminding all that while the risk of contracting coronavirus remains very low, it is important to wash one’s hands frequently and employ other protections, such as when coughing, to prevent the spread of any disease.
In the Diocese of Providence, a Feb. 27 directive from the Office of Divine Worship encourages pastors to prudently consider several guidelines and suggestions for safe health practices during Masses, including that parishioners avoid handshakes, embraces and other physical contact during the sign of peace.
“Parishioners are reminded that if they have symptoms of serious illness, they are dispensed from attending Holy Mass on Sunday and in fact should not attend Holy Mass. This is an obligation in charity that parishioners should take very seriously,” the directive states.
Principal Richard is adamant that St. Raphael Academy will get through this difficult situation.
“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. As we say here at St. Raphael Academy at the end of every prayer: ‘With Jesus in our hearts…Forever.’”
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