By Tom Tracy
Catholic News Service
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CNS) — U.S. Catholic schools are tweaking their reopening plans for a worrisome fall term by consulting parents and training staff for face-to-face instruction in many cases but with distance-learning programs in place as well.
With only a month left of summer vacation and with enrollment season unfolding in the atmosphere of uncertainty, parochial and other private Catholic schools around the country are rolling out a variety of teaching approaches for the new school year.
And given the mixed results of last spring’s rapid pivot to online education, a preference has been emerging for in-person instruction or for a hybrid blend of both virtual learning with partially reopened campuses.
“What I know about children and how they form relationships with adults, I don’t think there is much doubt that it would be better in person,” said Kathy Mears, interim director of the National Catholic Educational Association. “I also have no doubt that there are some really creative teachers out there who are going to figure out how to build those (online) relationships as best they can.”
Both in person and virtual learning methods are set to be implemented in various forms as school communities decide on strategies that are certain to vary from region to region and are subject to mid-course change as the pandemic expands, impacting some communities more than others.
Mears told Catholic News Service recently the NCEA has begun collecting schools’ reopening plans and safety protocols designed to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. There are more than 6,000 Catholic schools in the U.S., and many of those best practices plans will be shared among Catholic schools superintendents and principals nationwide through conference calls as the school year progresses.
Last year, students had the benefit of at least starting the school year in person and getting to know each other and the faculty face to face over a period of months before a national lockdown in March. It may prove a less than ideal situation wherever students are asked to start the next fall term online if forming trusting teacher-student relationships suffers.
“I am sure it will be more difficult the younger the students are,” Mears said. “I know some Catholic school teachers have already been meeting their students via Zoom one on one before school has even started so that the kids will kind of know their teachers the first time they come together as a group online.”
In addition, Catholic schools around the country that have posted their reopening plans online or shared them as news releases indicate several common modifications and safety protocols and a few novel ideas as well.
— Many schools are planning to reopen with an option for both in-person classes on campus and virtual learning for families not ready to return their child to campus.
— Across the board, schools have made an array of campus modifications to enhance social distancing, student traffic flow, mask wearing, safe drop-off and pickup procedures, temperature checks and enhanced air circulation, sanitation measures and professional cleaning services.
— Schools are keeping children in age-related cohorts that will study and play together but not mingle outside their cohort to limit the spread of a potential infection, reducing the need to quarantine an entire student body in the event of an outbreak.
— Parents and volunteers will be restricted from being on campus for the foreseeable future.
— Some schools are offering one-time financial incentives for students transferring in from non-Catholic schools.
Mears said she can’t think of any school principals who took vacation this summer as they worked nonstop to ready their school for all contingencies. And some estimates say at least 100 Catholic schools will not reopen this fall due to the economic hardships imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the related economic strain.
Meanwhile, working parents stuck at home have been under stress both from working remotely while simultaneously tutoring children for the last six months. Many are desperate to get their kids back into the classroom while others are more reluctant.
“The United States has never been more dependent on their teachers than they are right now and my hat is off to them because they are willing and trying to do what is best for their students,” Mears said.
The Archdiocese of Chicago, credited with creating a well-crafted and thorough reopening plan for some 70,000 Catholic schools students, is encouraging in-person instruction at its schools.
But for families who aren’t ready for that, the archdiocese has consolidated virtual learning into a centralized virtual academy platform to relieve schools of the burden of running both formats simultaneously.
“We believe it might be very difficult for classroom teachers to deliver both forms of instruction simultaneously and do it well,” Jim Rigg, the archdiocese’s superintendent of Catholic schools, told CNS.
“We are telling our teachers to put their time and attention into the face-to-face instruction component” whereas a new centralized archdiocesan virtual academy will serve families with long-term virtual teaching.
Parents who opt for virtual learning would still pay tuition and affiliate with their local Catholic school, with ongoing communication and coordination between that local school and the archdiocesan virtual academy.
Rigg said every Catholic school has its own unique history and culture and reopening with in-person instruction enables campus individuality to flourish with schools finding the right blend of solutions for returning to school safely while incorporating the current scientific and medical guidance on COVID-19.
The Chicago schools are now finalizing their individual reopening plans and will submit those to the archdiocesan schools office for review by Aug. 10; meanwhile they are training staff and faculty on the reopening measures.
“We feel face-to-face instruction is vital to Catholic education and something is lost when you lose those daily interactions between students and teachers,” Rigg said. “Most of our families still want that to happen.”
North of San Francisco, the principal of St. Vincent de Paul High School in Petaluma has announced a hybrid reopening plan starting Aug. 11 and featuring an initial phase of two days of in-person instruction Monday and Tuesday. It will be followed by three days of at-home, virtual learning for its 200 high school students.
By Sept. 15, the school will assess the situation and consider moving to four days of face-to-face instruction, giving the students a chance to acclimate to the novelties and restrictions of a post-pandemic campus.
“We felt this hybrid model will give students and teachers as well time to get acclimated to things like teaching behind a plastic screen and students wearing face masks — it’s a different educational experience,” Patrick Daly, St. Vincent de Paul’s principal, told CNS.
Daly represented Catholic schools at a “National Dialogue on Safely Reopening America’s Schools” with President Donald Trump July 7 at the White House.
Trump has been advocating for schools to reopen with face-to-face teaching and to revive a devastated U.S. economy.
Daly told the president that decisions about school reopenings should never be political but rather based on safety precautions and what is best for the youth. He also said he hopes to avoid full-time distance learning, which he said isn’t healthy for young people nor their parents nor teachers, whom he said end up working three and four times harder.
“You can get some one-on-one learning through Zoom but not everything,” Daly said. “We also have to worry about (student) mental health.”
The NCEA’s Mears simply asks parents to keep an open mind about both online learning and in-person faith based instruction as schools go forward: Virtual learning has been proven to work and can be a highly effective platform for both religious instruction and core curriculum. Likewise, she said, schools understand the current science on COVID-19 and are confident they can mitigate risks of face-to-face teaching.
“Teachers everywhere will continue to try to do what is best for their students. I don’t feel like there are tons of choices — if people are making that decision that they have to start online, it’s because the science dictates that and they will make the best of it,” Mears said. “We are not going to know for several years probably how this impacted children.”