Editor's Note: Gerald Habershaw died Saturday, after this story was published.
WARWICK — Pilgrim High School students are headed back to school next week after a period of remote learning and Thanksgiving break — but the future of their principal isn’t so simple.
An assistant principal, Pamela Bernardi, has been named acting principal as the district investigates compliance with mask requirements at the school’s homecoming dance on Nov. 6.
Beyond that change, the status of the school’s principal, Gerald Habershaw, wasn’t clear Friday.
'Turned upside down and sideways'
Both an outbreak of COVID cases within the school community and lots of lively online discussion about mask-wearing have trailed the late-autumn soiree.
Warwick School Committee Chairwoman Judith L. Cobden said Friday that she could not say whether Habershaw had been placed on administrative leave, but the district’s protocols allow for paid leave during an investigation. That’s “common,” she said.
“This has been turned upside down and sideways,” Cobden said, adding that the School Committee had not taken up any discussion about disciplinary action against Habershaw, including termination or suspension.
“Everybody wants the kids to have a normal high school experience,” Cobden said. “We wish everything could go back to normal. But unfortunately, we have to create a new normal. Whether you agree with this or not we have guidelines we have to follow. And they are not just from the governor. We have to be careful for the kids.”
Caught on tape
Video taken during the homecoming dance showed principal Habershaw and a large proportion of students without masks.
Students and staff are required to wear masks inside school district buildings in Rhode Island.
Cobden said the dance was held a tent outdoors, but said videos show that the tent has walls, which raises questions about appropriate ventilation.
In a statement earlier this week, Cobden said Warwick schools Supt. Lynn Dambruch would report the findings of the district’s investigation to the committee.
“... to date,” she said, “no administrators or employees have been disciplined, suspended or terminated by the superintendent or School Committee as a result of the Pilgrim homecoming dance.”
What was clear on Friday was that many parents were already rallying to Habershaw’s cause.
Erin Ferrazzo, whose son attends Pilgrim, established a petition on Change.org. It had collected almost 5,000 signatures by Friday afternoon.
“Let’s give Habershaw his job back as we stand together and support an amazing teacher, principal and cheerleader for our children,” it says.
Ferrazzo said she had worded the petition before Cobden’s statement and prior to comments from the district on Bernardi’s reassignment.
Meanwhile, over the last seven days, the state Department of Health has tallied 20 to 24 new cases among Pilgrim students and five to nine new cases among staff, said a spokesman, Joseph Wendelken.
About half of the infected students attended the dance, he said.
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Pilgrim High School principal's fate uncertain after caught unmasked