Former Providence school employee says she was punished for following COVID protocols

·3 min read

PROVIDENCE — A former school administrator has filed a whistleblower lawsuit claiming she was fired from her job because she reported too many close contacts after testing positive for COVID-19.

In a civil suit filed in Providence on Jan. 26, Cassandra Johns of Warwick alleges she was terminated from her job as an instructional support leader for following the state, local and school protocols around COVID.

She specifically accuses Olayinke Alege of retaliating against her.

Alege was a high-ranking network administrator who resigned this spring after he was charged with assaulting a boy in a Warwick gym. He has since challenged his arrest.

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Olayinka Alege outside court on May 13.
Olayinka Alege outside court on May 13.

The suit names the Rhode Island Department of Education, which has state control over the city’s public schools; state Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green; and interim Schools Supt. Javier Montanez. It also names Providence city Treasurer James J. Lombardi III.

Johns contends the following events took place:

On Nov. 20, 2020, her partner contracted COVID. Johns immediately left Nathan Bishop Middle School and told her direct supervisor, Michael Comella, that she had to quarantine for two weeks. The next day, she began showing symptoms of the virus. She tested positive on Nov. 25.

Donna O’Connor, the district’s head nurse, asked Johns to provide a list of employees who might have been exposed. Johns gave O’Connor her “tracing journal,” which listed 11 individuals.

Johns was cleared by her doctor to return to work on Dec. 3.

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But that same night, her supervisor told her he wasn’t ready for her to return and that she “needed to earn trust back.” He also told her that she would work out of a “downtown” location – the basement of the district office at 797 Westminster St.

After spending five days working in the basement, Johns asked for a meeting with her supervisor and James Boyd, executive director of middle schools.

Johns was asked to meet with Alege on Dec. 14. During that meeting, her supervisor accused of her disrupting the middle school by placing so many names on her contact list, which meant they had to quarantine.

Two days later, Johns again met with Alege. This time, she claims Alege made up baseless allegations against her, including that she discussed principals’ confidential ratings.

“Then,” the suit says, “Dr. Alege got to the point by telling her that ‘you don’t use good judgment and you are struggling to reflect on what you did wrong.’ ‘’

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At a subsequent meeting, Alege repeated that he “was losing confidence in Johns, that he had a growing level of concern,” the suit says.

Alege then allegedly said he was removing Johns from her position and asked if she wanted to return to the classroom. She said no.

A few days later, Johns said she was assigned to another position as a long-term substitute whose position would end in June. Moreover, Johns was told she would be teaching English as a second language, for which she wasn’t certified.

“Plaintiff realized she was being given this substitute teaching position to humiliate her after she had been a prominent district administrator,” the suit says.

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Johns resigned Jan. 8.

“It appears that the defendant’s retaliatory termination of the plaintiff from her position as instructional support leader ... destroyed plaintiff’s career as an educational administrator,” the suit says.

Johns is seeking to get her administrative position back, or that she be paid wages and benefits until she finds a similar job. She is also seeking any wages and benefits that she lost after she was assigned to a lesser job.

The state Department of Education could not be immediately reached for comment.

Linda Borg covers education for the Journal.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Providence schools sued over COVID allegations Olayinka Alege