Summer is only halfway over, but Catholic school administrators in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis are learning it’s not too early to plan ahead for the 2020-21 school year — especially during a pandemic.
With the goal of returning students to classrooms in the fall, Catholic school personnel have the unprecedented task of making sure their learning environments are safe and comply with the guidelines of health experts.
COVID-19 preparedness teams from each Catholic school in the Archdiocese received templates from Archbishop Bernard Hebda. Using guidelines from the Minnesota Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, task forces will fill out the templates according to the best researched safety practices and send them back to the archbishop by the end of July. Task forces include Catholic school employees in areas like teaching, office work and health.
Bethlehem Academy President/Principal Mindy Reeder emphasized that reopening Catholic schools in the fall is the goal, but not the definite plan. She and Gina Ashley, principal of Divine Mercy Catholic School in Faribault, know the landscape constantly changes in terms of information on COVID-19. That’s why the document Hebda distributed leaves room for possible changes.
“It’s meant to be a living, breathing document, not written in stone,” Ashley said.
In completing the templates, Ashley said the COVID-19 preparedness teams need to evaluate various protocols according to a number of factors, like class size and grade level. If MDH and CDC encourage older students to wear masks, for example, BA will likely follow that guideline. Preschool students, who may not comprehend social distancing, will be placed into small family groups.
The tentative plan for middle school students is to remain in one classroom for most of the day, said Reeder, rather than rotating like usual. Instead, teachers will likely switch classrooms throughout the day. Students will still leave their main classroom for music and phy-ed classes, however.
While some schools will require students to eat lunch in their classrooms, Reeder and Ashley said students at BA and DMCS will most likely eat in the lunchroom one class at a time with tables sanitized between shifts.
Ashley said DMCS and BA also planned hybrid models and distance learning models for possible alternatives, particularly for students who are sick or living with someone who is sick. Reeder added parents received surveys about how distance learning went in the spring and how BA could improve the model for the future.
The greatest analogy Ashley has heard in regards to the pandemic is that driving or riding in a vehicle is a risk every time, but following safety protocol like wearing a seat belt and knowing the rules of the road reduces the risk. Before school begins, BA and DMCS will offer orientation and training to students and teachers, so they can feel more prepared for reopening during a pandemic.
All Catholic schools in the diocese are expected to have a quarantine room, which BA and DMCS have implemented. The room will serve as a place for students to wait for someone to take them home if they come in contact with the virus or experience symptoms.
Learning that takes place outside the classroom, like field trips, will be canceled this year. Other out-of-class learning opportunities like service days, which are important to the mission of BA and DMCS, will need to be reevaluated. With nursing homes closed, Reeder said students may instead write letters to residents rather than visiting them or find other creative ways to reach out to others.
Finding ways to worship together proposes another unique challenge for Catholic schools. Students usually attend Mass together in large groups, but to reduce the risk, smaller groups may become the new norm.
So far, Ashley said she’s confident DMCS and BA have a solid plan in place for the fall. The various group members have brought important discussions and questions to the table, she said, as the team prepares the templates.
Reeder added that she finds it important that all areas of the school play a role in developing the plan, as each individual offers a unique perspective.
At Holy Cross Catholic School in Webster, Principal Connie Krocak said, “It’s nice to have a template for the archdiocese.”
Like BA and DMCS, Holy Cross has implemented a task force composed of various personnel. That includes the school’s canonical administrator, the Rev. Nick VanDenBroeke, parents, teachers and nursing staff.
The team is preparing learning avenues like hybrid models and distance learning in addition to the reopening plan. The option to continue distance learning is open to parents, but Krocak said none of the school’s families have expressed interest in that so far.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if at some time during the year we may need to go into distance learning again, even if it’s just one class,” Krocak said. “Based on what we did in the spring, our teachers figured out plans that worked well for them at the developmental levels of those children. We would use the same procedure we used in the spring, because it worked well for us.”
Holy Cross released surveys to teachers to find out any concerns they have about distance learning, if they prefer to teach with a mask or not, and if they’re willing to help write protocols and procedures for the year ahead. Parents also receive updates from Holy Cross via Flocknote and video messages.
Krocak said the biggest class at Holy Cross is just 12 students, and classrooms are spacious. These two factors will make for easier social distancing. New protocol will be set in the lunchroom and at recess to ensure touched surfaces are sanitized after every use. Teachers and students will also need to follow new protocol for monitoring wellness.
Younger Holy Cross students usually pair with older students to go to Mass, but that “buddy” system may be eliminated this year. In the coming weeks, her team will decide if outside parishioners will have access to Mass with the students.
“For now it’s a plan in progress, and we will definitely have that figured out at the end of the month,” Krocak said. “We need to; that’s our deadline.”
Of the students, Krocak said, “We have missed them big time, so it will be wonderful to have them back in the building again.”