By Carol Zimmermann Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON — For many Catholic schools that have already reopened for in-person classes or hope to do so in the coming weeks, getting ready for the new school year has involved a lot more planning than usual.
And for the school year to go smoothly and safely, school officials stress that it will require strict adherence to new protocols and the flexibility to switch gears if necessary.
In some areas, Catholic schools are opening their doors where public schools are planning to only provide online education at least for the start of the school year. In other parts of the country, Catholic schools are fighting to open when state restrictions are preventing in-person instruction for public and private schools to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
In the Archdiocese of Washington, there has been a lot of back and forth for Catholic schools in one of its Maryland counties where a health officer had issued directives forbidding private and religious schools from opening to in-person instruction at the start of the school year but rescinded this decision Aug. 7.
The Archdiocese of Washington’s Catholic Schools Office praised the announcement as a reaffirmation of “the autonomy of parochial schools and nonpublic schools to make their own reopening decisions.”
And in California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order in July that prevents public and private schools from returning to in-person learning in counties on the state’s COVID-19 watchlist, St. Augustine High School, a boys Catholic school in San Diego, and the families of seven of its students, filed a lawsuit Aug. 6 against the state.
In a statement, the school principal, James Horne, said: “We don’t believe remote learning is sufficient to provide a quality education our students are entitled to and our families have come to expect. We are confident we can open our school safely, consistent with CDC and San Diego County health guidance.”
The Los Angeles Times reported that this summer the school held summer school and athletic programs where school leaders said they implemented rigorous safety measures and were able to serve students in person without any reports of positive coronavirus cases.
The school installed UV lights in the air-conditioning system during the summer and regularly sanitized surfaces. Students were required to wear face masks and practice social distancing, school officials said.
These types of protocols are part of the new routine for all reopening Catholic schools including those in the Diocese of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which opened for in-person instruction in early August, when area public schools are in virtual mode until at least Labor Day.
Melanie Palmisano, superintendent of Catholic schools, said protocols are being tailored to each school’s individual needs. There is no “one size fits all, ” she told The Catholic Commentator, diocesan newspaper of Baton Rouge, stressing that all schools will of course follow guidelines set by the Louisiana Department of Education.
Procedures for students entering school buildings will vary, but all schools will have a method verifying that students are in good health either from parents signing in each day on the school’s app answering a series of health questions or daily temperature checks of all students.
Recess also will have a different look as students will not be allowed to play on the equipment or engage in contact sports. Lunches will either be delivered to the classroom so students can eat at their desks, or lunches will be grab-and-go style, with students either returning to the class to eat or eating outside.
Catholic schools in the Diocese of Nashville, Tennessee, which began in-person classes in early August, while local public schools have remained online for the first weeks of the school year, have seen an increased enrollment.
The diocesan schools, which began opening Aug. 3, are taking extensive steps to protect students and teachers which they will be diligent with, said Rebecca Hammel, Catholic school superintendent.
“I feel like this year it’s going to be different for everyone,” she told the Tennessee Register, Nashville’s diocesan newspaper. “Our students are going to come back to school in a different place because they haven’t been together in so long.”
In Boston, where public and Catholic schools are both reopening, Thomas Carroll, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Boston, said that once the governor said schools could resume, they began to figure out how they would do it.
He told The Pilot, Boston’s archdiocesan newspaper, that no Catholic school principal considered not opening for in-person instruction in the fall.
“Our approach is, we want to be there for the families,” he said.
The schools will operate with health protocols in place and with the understanding that if they have to switch to an online format, they will be ready to do so. The archdiocese has been training teachers with technology to livestream or record their classes, so that sick or quarantined students can continue to receive instruction at home.
“One of the hallmarks of Catholic school is the sense of community that we build within the schools. And it’s a lot easier to build community when you’re all together than doing it over a laptop, ” he said.
Another twist for some Catholic schools, including those in the Diocese of Orlando, Florida, and the Archdiocese of Louisville, Kentucky, will be delayed in-person openings for a week or two, following local guidelines.
And some Catholic schools, like those in the Philadelphia Archdiocese, are planning a mix of in-person and virtual instruction this fall. Philadelphia’s public schools, which initially planned a similar hybrid mix, will now begin only virtually.
An archdiocesan statement said that in-person learning will be the norm at Catholic elementary schools since it “allows time for students to develop spiritually, socially, emotionally, physically and academically based on their levels of growth and maturity.”
Families that choose to keep their children at home can utilize the schools’ online education program.
Archdiocesan high schools will offer in-person instruction and minimize the number of people in the school by splitting time among the student body: Only half of the students will be physically present in the school each day.
In all the schools, sneeze shields will be on each desk and classrooms will be equipped with a no-touch thermometer, hand sanitizers, disinfecting wipes, face masks, face shields and gloves. Masks must be worn by everyone throughout the day.
If necessary, the archdiocesan schools also will be ready to transition to remote learning, as they did in the spring.
The archdiocesan statement said it “has recognized the essential need to be nimble in the face of the ever-evolving pandemic landscape. Developments will be constantly evaluated, and plans adjusted accordingly. We have the capacity and are prepared to provide a virtual learning environment to the greatest extent possible if necessary.”