Mercymount, others seeing few COVID-19 cases

Mercymount, others seeing few COVID-19 cases

At Mercymount Country Day School in Cumberland, 6th-grade students are working in a science lab. Following COVID-19 protocols, they are wearing masks and are kept in pods that stay in one classroom for the day, as teachers move from room to room, say officials.

CUMBERLAND – As debates continue about the best way to educate students in the ongoing pandemic, officials at several local Catholic schools are reporting success with both 100 percent in-person learning and a hybrid model, reporting very few cases of students or staff testing positive for the virus.

“Quite honestly, I’d rather have students in school,” Sister Rayleen Giannotti, principal of Mercymount Country Day School, a K-8 school in Cumberland, told The Breeze. “They’re in a pod. Their exposures are limited to that pod.”

When they’re learning at home, their time is less structured, and they’re more apt to be exposed to the virus, she said. Taking into consideration the size of the building and ability to keep children six feet apart, students at Mercymount in all grades have been attending classes in person five days a week since the start of the school year, she noted.

“We did our best to make sure that we had the ability to continue our educational programming and curriculum while first and foremost keeping children safe and socially distant,” she said. “Generally, I think things have been going really well. We have a phenomenal community.”

Students have been great about keeping their masks on, understanding that it’s their way of taking care of their community, she added.

In-person learning has continued for the entirety of this school year with the exception of one two-day pause after a specialist tested positive for the virus, Giannotti said. In total, two teachers and 10 students have tested positive, she said. There are some children whose families opted for them to learn virtually, she noted, so while teachers are in the classroom they also have Zoom streaming in the room.

There have been some challenges, the principal noted, with four teachers out two weeks ago, for example. “For us, that’s gigantic,” she said. Since it’s difficult to find substitute teachers all across the state, Giannotti said teachers and administrators have been helping out when necessary. “Is it ideal? No, but does everyone want school to stay open? Absolutely,” she said.

Her hope and prayer, she said, is that they can stay open five days a week for the remainder of the current school year and hopefully return to “some sense of normalcy come August.”

Mount Saint Charles Academy, a private Catholic junior-senior high school in Woonsocket, which is operating under a hybrid model of learning, has had a 98.5 percent rate of attendance by students this year, according to academy President Alan Tenreiro. Half the students are in person two days a week and half are virtual two days a week, and then switch, and everyone is virtual on Wednesdays, he said.

“It’s going well,” he told The Breeze. “They are reporting to classes (and) attending classes. They don’t just get work to do on their own on remote learning days. That’s been important.” Tenreiro said he doesn’t have the specific numbers of how many teachers and students have tested positive for the virus, but noted that there has never been a transmission that’s occurred in a classroom. They’ve also recently done two rounds of rapid tests in the residence hall, which have both been 100 percent negative, he added. Last September, The Breeze reported that approximately 12 students were placed in quarantine after one tested positive for the virus. Classes have been in session since Aug. 31, and he noted that they took an extra week off around Christmas to allow people time to quarantine if necessary.

“I think it’s going very smoothly for everything we have in place,” he said, adding that they developed a safety plan with a group of more than 40 parents. “We always sought their input.”

Teachers have been working really hard, with one foot in the classroom and the other in the virtual world, he said, adding that there have been a couple of days where “we got pretty close to it being a little bit difficult” with a number of teachers out, needing to quarantine.

“We’ve been lucky enough that there have been no real serious cases so far, especially with staff,” Tenreiro said.

Teachers have been covering for each other when necessary, and sometimes a teacher can supervise a couple of classes in a larger multipurpose room that can sit 60 kids socially distanced if needed, he noted.

“We hope that in the spring and with lower rate of spread that we can bring more kids into the building and have some great spring events for the Class of 2021 and the whole school,” Tenreiro said.

Students at Saint Raphael Academy, a Catholic high school in Pawtucket, have also been learning in a hybrid model since the beginning of the school year, and Principal Daniel Richard said they’ve been really pleased with how it’s going.

Students have been abiding by the rules and are wearing their masks, he said, and the majority of them “are super excited to be back in school, which I never thought I’d say about a high school student.”

Teachers, he said, have been great and have done a tremendous job with having to educate students both virtually and in the classroom.

While no teachers have tested positive for the virus this school year, he said there have been a handful of students who have. “I think the schools are relatively safe,” he said. “We haven’t had to close the school down due to community spread all school year.”

In an effort to mitigate risks as much as possible, the school installed commercial air purifiers in every room and new filters for gymnasiums, Richard said.

Back in March of 2020, the first reported case of COVID-19 in Rhode Island was an administrator at St. Ray’s, and Richard said he’s not sure why the virus “opted to come here first” but that the community rallied. “Our faith was tested but everything worked out,” he said.

Some seeing bump in new students Tenreiro said that at the beginning of the pandemic and now still, Mount Saint Charles has received inquiries from families looking to leave public schools, some of them unhappy with the quality of remote learning.

“We’re happy that they’ve heard good things about what we’re doing,” he said.

Giannotti noted that officials at Mercymount have seen a significant increase in enrollment this year. Parents are happy with the education students are getting at Mercymount and are planning to stay next year, she said, adding that it would be difficult for students to be in school five days a week and then go back to a school where the vast majority of time is virtual learning.

Richard said they haven’t seen new students who were pulled out of the public system by their families, but added that if that was the case they would gladly accept them.