BOSTON — Students and teachers at the private St. Raphael Academy in Rhode Island had recently returned from a study trip to Italy and two other countries last week when a travel advisory was issued warning of a coronavirus outbreak there.
Few were worried, until reports began circling that a school administrator who had gone on the trip was sick, possibly with the flu or pneumonia. A reassuring email went out from the principal on Saturday, telling parents not to overreact to “information being shared through various media outlets” about the staff member’s health. State health officials, the principal said, had not advised testing or a quarantine.
Then on Sunday, a second email arrived. It had a different tone.
The administrator, who had returned on Feb. 22 from the weeklong trip with 38 students and chaperones, had tested positive for coronavirus, making it Rhode Island’s first case. A few hours later, a third email informed parents that a teenage girl on the same trip had also tested positive and that a second adult chaperone, a woman in her 30s, had developed symptoms and was also undergoing testing.
School, it said, would be closed for a week. Students should avoid gathering in large groups.
Suzanne Arena, whose 16-year-old daughter is friends with the sick teenager, has gone over the timeline again and again since then, wondering how much exposure occurred before the teacher was tested, and before those test results were made public.
She learned about the sick staff member, she said, when a rival school refused to compete against St. Raphael Academy in a cheerleading contest scheduled for Sunday morning — team members had heard there was coronavirus at St. Raphael.
“These kids are all at school, and they weren’t given guidance,” Ms. Arena said. “Did they really not know? How many days does it take the Department of Health to figure this out? How hard is it to run a test? Are we doing it by pony?”
As the number of coronavirus cases in the United States reached 103 on Monday, the wide potential exposure at places like schools was becoming increasingly problematic.
At least a dozen schools were ordered closed Monday in Washington State, where six people have died after exposure to coronavirus. A school in Oregon was ordered closed through Thursday after a school employee had the illness diagnosed.
The unfolding investigation at St. Raphael Academy, a Catholic preparatory school near Providence, shows how difficult it is for school officials to provide accurate warnings and timely responses to a fast-spreading virus that, in this case, began reaching multiple possible points of contact long before public health officials and school administrators were able to act.
This week, public health officials were scrambling to follow the trail of potential exposure that followed the school group’s return to the United States. But every day that has elapsed since the end of the trip — nine days ago — has made that more difficult.
The school administrator called in sick right away, but state officials were not informed of the specifics of the case — a patient with respiratory symptoms and recent travel history to Italy — until Feb. 26, four days after the group’s return, according to Joseph Wendelken, a spokesman for Rhode Island’s Department of Health.
The man spent those first days at home, with what seemed like the flu, but had contact with his wife and children, who in turn had contact with others until Feb. 27, when they were given orders to isolate themselves. None of his family members have developed symptoms, Nicole Alexander-Scott, the director of Rhode Island’s Department of Health, said on Sunday.
The administrator’s specimens had been collected earlier, but could not be tested until Feb. 29, a week after the group returned, Mr. Wendelken said. “This is a brand-new test,” he said.
Once they were able, officials hurried “to run the test extremely quickly in response to this urgent situation,” he said, and the positive results were available the same day.
The coronavirus diagnosis triggered further actions: All 38 students and faculty members who went on the trip were instructed to self-quarantine for 14 days, and tests were administered to the two other people on the trip, the chaperone and the student, who had developed symptoms, Mr. Wendelken said. Both were positive.
The following day, on Sunday, officials announced their decision to suspend school, first for a few days and then for the week.
On Monday, Rhode Island officials announced the temporary closing of a second school, the Achievement First Academy, where the ill chaperone worked, pending the outcome of her coronavirus test.
State officials said they had been in touch all over Rhode Island to make sure that responses were as quick as they could be.
“Last night we were on the phone with all the school superintendents, we are in contact today with teachers and superintendents, making sure they have all the supplies they need,” Gov. Gina Raimondo said.
Ms. Alexander-Scott said officials were conducting “extensive contact tracing work” to identify anyone who might have had contact with the St. Raphael group that traveled to Europe.
Administrators at St. Raphael would not respond to questions about the quarantine, referring all inquiries to the state Department of Health. In a Q. and A. published on the school’s website, officials said the school was informed of the “possible cause” of its staff member’s illness on Feb. 26, four days after the group returned from Europe, and immediately alerted state authorities.
Ms. Arena, whose daughter attends the school, said she worried about a backlash directed at the sick teenager, whose illness was not confirmed until after the testing on Feb. 29, from people saying he should have stayed home when he first felt symptoms.
But even St. Raphael students, she said, are wondering why school was allowed to go on as usual after the illness of the administrator, who also served on the faculty, was diagnosed.
“Clearly the teacher was sick,” she said. “Wouldn’t logic dictate, given the environment that we are currently in, that it would have made sense to quarantine these students?”
Concern has spread beyond the boundaries of the now-closed schools.
One of the students on the Europe trip — though not one who has developed symptoms or been tested — served food to around 20 needy people at the Pawtucket Food Kitchen on Feb. 28, said Adrienne Marchetti, the kitchen’s executive director.
“We’re just worried for our people, because they’re vulnerable and could get sick,” she said. “You don’t know, it’s just one of those crapshoot things. Of course everyone’s worried.”
She said the atmosphere in the neighborhood had been transformed by the school’s closing. “It’s like a ghost town around here,” she said. “People are petrified.”
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