WARWICK — At least 45 people who attended a Nov. 6 homecoming dance at Pilgrim High School have tested positive for COVID-19. And the event may have contributed to the death of school principal Gerald Habershaw, says his brother.
Habershaw, 57, who had been fully vaccinated, died Saturday of complications from COVID, said his younger brother David Habershaw.
“He started feeling ill a couple of days after the dance,” David Habershaw said, “but he was getting better” — though sleeping about 20 hours a day.
Gerald Habershaw had not been hospitalized and was convalescing at home in North Kingstown, his brother said. He died Saturday after a rescue rushed him to a hospital after he began suffering chest pains, said David Habershaw.
Pilgrim High in Warwick: What we know about the COVID cases spreading from Pilgrim High homecoming dance
"All of us in the district and on the committee are devastated," said School Committee member Karen Bachus. "He was an amazing human being, and an amazing teacher and administrator. He really was a one-in-a-million guy."
In a statement Sunday, Warwick Supt. Lynn Dambruch said: “We are shocked and saddened to learn of the passing of Gerry Habershaw. He was a beloved member of the Warwick School Community and a mentor, friend and colleague of us all. Our condolences go out to his family and the Pilgrim community.”
Dambruch added that grief counseling was available for students and staff on Sunday from 1-4 p.m., and all day on Monday.
Habershaw had been facing an uncertain future in the wake of a COVID outbreak at Pilgrim, which occurred shortly after the high school's homecoming dance.
Videos of the event showed that Habershaw and numerous students had not been wearing masks during the event. Dancing occurred in a tent erected outside but students also congregated by the dozens inside the school where food was being offered, video showed.
On Sunday, a state health department spokesman said that 59 Pilgrim High School students and another 6 school staff members had tested positive for COVID-19 this month.
At least 45 of those people attended the homecoming dance, the spokesman said.
An investigation surrounding the dance and whether COVID-19 protocols were violated is underway. As of Friday, the school district would not say if Habershaw had been placed on leave, though an assistant principal had been named "acting principal."
Numerous parents and students had spoken up in support for Habershaw, and a Change.org petition to "give Mr. Habershaw his job back" had more than 5,000 signatures by Saturday night.
“Let’s give Habershaw his job back as we stand together and support an amazing teacher, principal and cheerleader for our children,” said the petition, created by parent Erin Ferrazzo. One supporter added, "Mr. Habs would never intentionally do anything to harm his faculty or students."
Habershaw served as principal of Warwick Veterans Memorial High School from 2005 to 2016, then moved to Pilgrim High School when the city's high schools were consolidated.
He was named "Administrator of the Year" by the Rhode Island Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association in 2010, and inducted into Bishop Hendricken High School's Athletic Hall of Fame in 2013.
“I learned a long time ago that I was put on this earth to help kids,” he told The Providence Journal in 2016.
A large crowd of people attended a vigil to honor Habershaw on Sunday night at the Pilgrim High School football field, many of them carrying candles and some with flashlights. A memorial with black balloons, candles and posters was arranged at the home goal post.
Cars filled every available spot, as planes from TF Green Airport took off directly overhead.
Testimonials, some of them tearful, spoke of the lengths the principal would go to help others.
Mayor Frank Picozzi said on Saturday night that Habershaw was "devoted to his students and co-workers. He touched the lives of so many in this city."
"Our condolence, thoughts and prayers go out to his loved ones," Picozzi said in a statement. "The city of Warwick is standing by to offer any support or help needed."
Tributes to Habershaw also began pouring in on social media on Saturday night.
"Habs was a great guy who taught so many of us how to be tough on the court, and how to be positive influences in the schools and community," wrote one basketball player Habershaw had coached.
Another added, "He is what made Pilgrim so special."
Staff writer Donita Naylor contributed to this report.
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Pilgrim High principal Gerald Habershaw died from COVID, says brother