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WESTERLY — Westerly High School will be in full distance learning mode this week after 18 members of the school community, including several football players, recently tested positive for COVID-19.

“We’re hoping to get a handle on this and reopen healthy a week from today,” Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau said Monday in explaining the decision to shift to virtual learning this week.

Distance learning was ordered for Monday through Thursday. Friday will remain a vacation days as originally scheduled.

Garceau and other school officials are asking students and their families to double down on efforts to slow the spread of the virus, saying the rise in reported positive cases has the potential to put the football season and traditional year-end activities at risk.

The football season was already postponed from the fall, beginning a rare spring season just a few weeks ago. A game slated for Saturday was canceled due to the rate of players who tested positive, and it remains unclear whether a game scheduled for this weekend will take place. The team has not had any live, in-person activity since March 19.

“It put the football season, prom and graduation all at risk and it’s very unfortunate and it’s very frustrating because we’ve come so far in keeping the school buildings open,” Garceau said.

Garceau’s comment regarding the prom and graduation come as officials await guidance from state health officials on whether the events can be conducted and how. If cases of the virus are high in a particular community, Garceau said, the events would likely be severely curtailed or canceled even if the state permits them.

The positive cases associated with the high school started cropping up on the weekend of March 20. The school went to distance learning for March 22 but more cases were reported as the week progressed.

“They started popping up over the previous weekend and then throughout last week a number of positive cases among students kept popping up,” Garceau said.

According to an email to parents sent by Athletic Director Jamey Vetelino, the school has been involved with contact tracing for 12 players in all. Officials said they also believe that some students did not follow quarantine protocols and may have infected boyfriends and/or girlfriends.

School officials have also learned of “parties, get-togethers, and gatherings” that are believed to have played a role in spreading the virus, Garceau said. Parents who allow the events are “enabling” students to violate widely held health recommendations and executive orders from the governor, Garceau said.

“People are letting their guard down prematurely,” Garceau said.

The gatherings involved both players and non-players, officials said.

Vetelino, in his email, asked players and their parents to help turn around the recent trend.

“The health and safety of your sons is always important to us, but we also have a responsibility to the community as well. It simply is not fair to classmates, teachers, staff, coaches, school nurse, bus drivers and our town to continue a program in which individuals intentionally disregarded some of the rules in place to protect everyone. We need to be certain, if we continue, that we do so responsibly,” Vetelino said.

Vetelino, Garceau and Westerly High School Principal Michael Hobin all advocated for football and spring sports to go forward, Vetelino said.

“We hope this lay off is a wake up call to everyone. Myself, coaches, parents, players, administrators and support people need to all be on the same page,” he said. “None of us can let our guard down. Masks have to be worn, equipment cleaned, players spaced (when possible), health checked, people in isolation or quarantine stay where they need to, eliminate social gatherings, etc.”

“No detail is too small, we need to stop the spread and prevent it at the same time. We all need to step up, we all need to work together and we all can do this,” Vetelino said.

This article was edited at 12 p.m. on March 30 to correct the high school's schedule for this week.

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