“Thinking outside the box” is the approach Bethlehem Academy Principal Mindy Reeder and Divine Mercy Catholic School Principal Gina Ashley are taking as they prepare for a unique academic year.
“We look forward to welcoming students back to campus,” Reeder said. “At some point, we know how to gather this year could change, and we look forward to that.”
Ashley offered the perspective that the pandemic has given teachers opportunities to teach resilience to youth, and she considers that a gift.
“This community is a strong community, and I feel blessed to work with the people I have,” Ashley said. “… It gives me confidence we’ll work through it together and we’ll find a way through.”
Rice County Public Health approved in-person learning at Bethlehem Academy and Divine Mercy Catholic School. Reeder said a big reason for in-person learning is that Catholic schools in general have smaller student populations. For 2019-20, 220 students have enrolled at BA, another 190 have enrolled in kindergarten through fifth-grade and 67 in preschool at DMCS.
Parents took a look at the two schools’ plans and participated in town hall meetings to help them decide if they wanted their children to return to school in person or go the distance learning route. Less than 10 BA students and five total DMS students will engage in distance learning this year.
Schools will have staggered openings to help regulate the flow of traffic. Grades one through five return to school at DMCS Monday, BA students begin school Tuesday, and preschool and kindergarten students start Wednesday. Students will also have staggered release times on a regular basis.
Following health and safety guidelines, classes will be held in person with required mask-wearing, social distancing and regular sanitations. Students will have assigned seats to make for easy contact tracing if someone becomes ill.
At the elementary level, students will remain in the same classroom for the most part all day. Ashley said homeroom teachers cover all subject areas besides electives like art, music, and Phys Ed Since students have one to one devices, they won’t need to use the media lab for computer class. Students will go outdoors for Phys Ed as long as the weather cooperates, and use the big gymnasium during the winter months. The music teacher will travel from classroom to classroom, and for fifth-grade band, students will continue lessons outdoors or in the auditorium and meet in pods of no more than four students.
At BA, Reeder said middle school students will be grouped into pods and have teachers come to them about 50% of the time. High school students will switch classrooms and make use of larger, alternative learning spaces like the library and cafeteria. Certain classes, like art, will have Plexiglass dividers at the tables. As long as the weather allows, students will also have classes on a green space outside. Band students will need to spread out in larger spaces, like the cafeteria.
Lunch presents another challenge for the two schools. Elementary students will stay in their pods for lunch and abide by seating charts so they can stay with the same group throughout the day. There will be no self-serve options at either school, and students can bring a lunch or eat a hot meal provided.
At BA, Reeder said the lunch schedule will have more lunch periods than usual to allow for better social distancing. Tables will seat no more than four students at a time, and Plexiglass partitions will provide an extra level of separation. High school and middle school students will have assigned seating in the lunchroom, but their spots could change throughout the year. The salad bar will not be an option.
Weekly Mass will look different this school year, and DMCS and BA students won’t combine for Mass until further notice. Middle school and high school students will attend Mass separately, every other week, which will open up seats for parishioners and the community. Grades won’t intermix. Instead they’ll abide by assigned seating. What’s a bit sad to Reeder is that singing in the congregation is prohibited to prevent the spread of germs, but individual cantors may occasionally sing at the altar.
“I have to give kudos to the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis because they really put a lot of effort and time into researching protocols,” Ashley said.
Since church services resumed in May, Ashley noted it’s given her comfort as a school leader to see how well protocols have worked out in the past few months.
In terms of special events and field trips, BA and DMCS staff need to alter their approaches in providing fun and safe opportunities for students. Homecoming is still on the calendar for fall, but activities will need to be modified to meet protocols. Trunk-or-Treat, a big Halloween event for DMCS, will also continue but with a different format than usual.
“We’ll have to continue to work through things, but creatively, there’s ways,” Ashley said.
Any student or staff member who experiences symptoms of COVID-19 would report to a quarantine area within their school. The school nurse would examine the individual, who would then be picked up by a parent or guardian. Every situation is different, said Ashley, so the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) will have the final say in the next steps. In the event of a lab-confirmed case, seating charts will make contact-tracing more accurate. BA and DMCS will also follow a decision tree MDH released and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis simplified.
Ashley said she feels supported by Public Health officials, who engaged in weekly calls and answered questions both in real time and after doing more research.
“I think as a whole, there’s a lot of comfort,” Reeder said. “Between the state and being a private school through the diocese, we’ve had a lot of support … There are people who are trained and have the scientific knowledge to say, ‘This is what we want you to do.’”