Catholic schools in the archdiocese have been working diligently over the summer to formalize plans for students’ safe return to classes in August.
School openings or closings as well as safety protocols and policies are being guided by local governments and health officials, as well as each school’s individual circumstances, such as building space and student enrollment.
South City Catholic Academy in St. Louis has taped off classrooms and marked areas to maintain social distancing. Plans for return to school began with a survey of families by a school task force on the comfort level in returning to school.
Laura Hirschman, principal of the school, said she’s talked with parents to get their perspectives and has answered questions from those who reached out to her.
The health and safety task force has subcommittees that looked at operations and logistics; faith formation; and teaching and learning.
Besides spacing desks 6 feet apart, plans are wide-ranging, including for middle-school teachers to rotate classrooms. All areas of the school are being evaluated for classroom instruction because of the need for distancing. And outdoor space may be important as well for a break for students.
The focus is on safety and medical science, following the advice from experts. “And the reality is that once we release the plans, those could change in a week,” Hirschman said, adding that several contingency plans have been made.
No matter what, she said, the faith formation of students is the key. When classes were moved online in the spring, prayer services and livestreaming of Masses were a priority.
At St. Justin Martyr School in Sunset Hills, a task force is developing return-to-school plans that will minimize the risk from COVID-19 for students and staff as well as continue to provide an excellent education. There’s a presumption of returning to school in person five days a week, with accommodations for students who cannot attend for medical reasons. “At any time, we may have to switch to full-time virtual learning for all if dictated to do so by public health officials,” the task force reported.
Parents are asked to develop back-up plans for child care during an illness. Children with fevers or who exhibit
COVID-like symptoms will not be allowed at school. Children who have had exposure to a COVID-positive person will have to quarantine.
Our Lady of Lourdes School in University City is filming instructional and inspirational videos for parents. They will demonstrate morning protocols and have sample classrooms.
The school ordered clear plexiglass dividers for tables to allow students to eat lunch together safely.
“We will be using these and shields in front of desks for rooms with larger classes, still spaced 6 feet apart, but the shields will make everyone feel a little better while moving,” explained Amie Koenen, principal of Our Lady of Lourdes.
Though the situation could change depending on medical factors and further input from teachers and parents, “I would say most of my parents want their kids to come back and trust we can do it safely,” Koenen said in an email message. “I have reassured them that we will keep class sizes low and even lower them if we have to. We also have personalized iPads for each student. So if parents want to distance learn — they will have that option in the fall. We are asking them to select distance learning for a quarter so we do not have kids popping in and out on a daily or weekly basis. The iPads will be important to making this work smoothly.”
Our Lady School in Festus has a task force of parents, teachers, the maintenance staffer, director of religious education and a volunteer nurse. Tracy Kempfer, principal of the school, said plans were to be finalized and sent to parishes by July 24. “We’re feeling pretty confident,” she said. “Everything changes on a day-to-day basis but we’ll do our best to be in school and teach our kids face-to-face.”
Distance learning will be provided to any student quarantined due to COVID-19 or has an illness or compromised immune system,” Kempfer said.
The plan is to have extensive video meetings with students, she said, which also has been part of the planning in case in-school classes are modified or suspended.
Families at Christ the King School in University City have been receiving weekly updates via email, said principal Caroline McCarthy. The school will offer a distance-learning option for students who cannot attend in person, as well as in a situation where the school building must close at some point.
In order to minimize the potential for infection, each class will stay together as a cohort of sorts for the majority of the day and participate in activities together, including eating lunch in the classroom or in a designated spot outdoors. Students also will have more opportunities for learning outdoors, when appropriate. Exercise mats were purchased for each student to promote social distancing when in a group.
“The number one priority is the mental and physical health of our students,” McCarthy said. “Not everything has to take place within four walls. We are definitely having to get creative here. We’re flipping education on its side.”
At St. Clare of Assisi School in Ellisville, teachers are preparing for the school year with a mindset of offering in-person and virtual learning experiences simultaneously for students, depending on the choices families make.
“The biggest question is that families are wondering how we are going to do this safely,” said principal Angie Lind. “Kids will have to bring masks, and we’re going to be social distancing. And if you’re not social distancing, you’re going to have to wear a mask.” Other precautions including keeping classes together as cohorts, but separated from other grades as much as possible and upgrading equipment, such as installing water bottle filling stations and other technology upgrades.
Lind has been emailing weekly updates to parents, with a final plan for the school year to be communicated toward the end of July.
“My hope is having happy, healthy kids, and being able to come together,” she said. “One of the biggest strengths of Catholic schools is the community. We are a community of the faithful, and we do that really well.” When the school building closed in the spring, “one of the biggest losses we felt was the sense of community. We look forward to them coming back to their home away from home.”
Attending Mass will be a priority for students returning to class at Immaculate Conception School in Dardenne Prairie, said principal Dan Mullenschlader. “Instilling a love of the Eucharist is a big part of the plan,” he said. “There will be some challenges, and we
will be coming up with protocols for that too, as we worship in a new way.”
Immaculate Conception has one of the largest enrollments among archdiocesan elementary schools, with 745 students enrolled in kindergarten through eighth grades. Like many other schools, a task force was formed, and health and safety protocols will be followed, including social distancing and the use of masks when social distancing isn’t possible. A plan for students to attend classes virtually, if needed, also is being developed, with Mullenschlader describing it a “collaboration and team effort.” Parents have been receiving updates from the task force throughout the summer.
“We want to have face-to-face education — it’s the best way we can continue to bring the mission of our Church and our school to our families,” Mullenschlader said. “At the same time, that can’t happen without proper health and safety protocols in place. Our goal is to provide a meaningful education in a healthy and safe environment.”
Teachers at Sts. Joachim and Ann School in St. Charles will be taking advantage of the outdoors for classroom space when appropriate, said principal Sue Schutz. Break times also will be built into the school day, where students can get outside and take off masks while keeping distance.
Sts. Joachim and Ann also has a task force to set guidelines in several areas, such as daily health screenings and temperature checks for students and staff. Student movement throughout the building will be minimized as much as possible, with teachers coming into classrooms for classes such as art and music.
“Children are starved to be in a community and have that interaction with others,” Schutz said. “Knowing physical safety and health have to be priority, we’re also taking into account their social and emotional well-being, too.”
On July 21, St. Mary Magdalen School in Brentwood principal Kathy Wiseman talked with teachers in an online meeting, giving them detailed information on masks, hand-washing and sanitizing and much more. “That’s what we’re going to focus on — being safe,” she said.
St. Ann School in Normandy will have a gradual approach to the school year, offering families flexibility in choosing throughout the school year from in-person or remote learning options. The school will host an orientation the first week of school, showing families the details of the available options, followed by a week of remote learning. By the third week, children whose families have chosen in-person learning will be in the school building, with remote learning into full swing as well.
“We are centered on safety as priority number one,” said principal Jacob Reft, as well as “flexibility and empowering families to make the right decision for their children.”
>> Resources for parents
Some help for parents in helping their children as they return to school (sources provided by St. Justin Martyr School):
• Video from University of Michigan Health System on how to get your child comfortable wearing face masks: bit.ly/2OFQkdE.
• Information from BJC Health System on helping children cope with the pandemic: bit.ly/3eMEnhd.
• Information about the safety of wearing face masks from the American Academy of Asthma, Allergy and Immunology: bit.ly/2WD0joL.