Say hello to reading, writing — and social distancing

| July 13, 2020 | 0 Comments

“Shoeprints” in a hallway at Immaculate Conception Catholic School in Columbia Heights will help students line up while keeping a recommended physical distance. COURTESY JANE BONA, IMMACULATE CONCEPTION

Students entering Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis at the end of this summer will find a new landscape. And new rules.

At Nativity of Our Lord Catholic School in St. Paul, students will see a newly painted playground designed to promote activities that are safe to play while curbing the spread of COVID-19, said Kate Wollan, Nativity’s principal.

Inside, they’ll see desks spaced farther apart than last year to meet social distancing recommendations. Desks for younger children will be inside individual boxes that are taped to the floor. “Desks move around a lot with little kids,” Wollan explained.

Before opening day, a group of teachers will mark walls with “joyful colors,” circles and other images, Wollan said, to help children know where to stand.

“How do you mark your building to show kids visually and in an aesthetically pleasing, delightful way?” Wollan said. “How do you help them know which hallway to walk down? Which way do we walk down that hallway? … We’ll almost make it a … bit of a game for our little kids, whenever we can.”

Similarly, at Immaculate Conception Catholic School in Columbia Heights, colorful yellow “shoeprints” and blue tape will help students line up in hallways while keeping the recommended physical distance.

Visual cues, distancing in classrooms and hallways, and other changes will be in place to protect the health and safety of students, teachers and other staff members. They are among issues schools are wrestling with as they prepare to reopen.

School leaders in the 79 elementary Catholic schools in the archdiocese, consulting with groups of teachers, parents and community members, are deciding how to implement dozens of health and safety protocols. An archdiocesan task force for reopening elementary schools — which, along with schools statewide, closed their campuses and began distance-learning in mid-March because of the COVID-19 pandemic — included Wollan and provided the schools with research-based information on subjects ranging from handwashing to food service, respiratory etiquette and much more.

Should school staff take students’ temperatures each morning? What happens when parents or vendors visit the school? How will schools accommodate children whose health status requires them to be at home?

These are all decisions that individual schools need to make, said Kevin Ferdinandt, headmaster of St. Agnes School in St. Paul and a member of the task force. Factors like the size of schools’ student bodies and facility layout inform the best decisions for any particular school, he said.

St. Agnes plans to send an update to parents about its work on the protocols in mid-July and a second communication in early August.

Jane Bona, principal at Immaculate Conception and a task force member, said school families should know that all schools in the archdiocese are taking reopening very seriously. They are working with the strongest research-based information available, she emphasized.

“Our mission as Catholic schools is at the heart of all that we do,” Bona said. “So we need to have that in mind as we develop these protocols. I have all confidence and faith that we will get this done in the best, responsible way.

While the state’s public school leaders have yet to determine their fall plans, task force members feel confident about Catholic schools’ decision to return to classrooms at the beginning of the school year. “We believe our children really learn best in a school setting,” she said.


CLASSROOM RETURN

When schools closed their campuses to curb the spread of COVID-19 in March, 28,000 students in Catholic schools in the archdiocese continued their learning — from home. Now schools are preparing to welcome students back for in-person instruction when the school year begins. The Catholic Spirit asked leaders in the archdiocese’s Office for the Mission of Catholic Education about their efforts to provide guidance to Catholic school leaders, who are responsible for developing school-specific plans to make the return safe for their students.

Q. As you anticipate students returning to in-person school in the fall, with lots of precautions to mitigate COVID risk, is the Catholic schools office mandating or recommending certain precautions?

A. In order to welcome students back into Catholic school buildings this fall, Catholic schools are required to implement a set of health and safety actions to mitigate the risk of infectious disease.

Q. What will Catholic schools do if Gov. Tim Walz, city or other local officials declare that all public schools in a district or across the state should close because of the pandemic?

A. As we did during the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis this past spring when Gov. Walz closed public schools, the archdiocese will prudently assess the circumstances and respond accordingly.

Q. Where can people learn more about the archdiocese’s school-opening plans? Individual school plans?

A. Bishop Cozzens and Dr. Jason Slattery (the archdiocesan director of Catholic education) addressed a letter to all Catholic school families in May in which they articulated the archdiocese’s plans to move forward in solidarity with Catholic school leaders in planning for in-person learning in the fall. If families have not received the letter, they may contact their school principal to receive a copy. Families should contact individual principals to learn the specific health and safety plans that will be in place for each school.

Q. Should parents be prepared to potentially return to distance learning at some point in the year? What factors would play into that decision?

A. Catholic schools are planning on returning to in-person learning at the start of the 2020-21 school year. COVID-19 has taught us the need for the development of multiple contingencies. As a point of reference, it may be good to remember that when the decision was made to close Catholic school buildings in March, the 91 Catholic schools of the archdiocese made a plan and transitioned to distance learning within a matter of days. Parents, students, and teachers displayed heroic efforts to keep our students learning. There were aspects of distance learning that were a real struggle and there were aspects that showed real strength. We point this out, because in March we didn’t have the opportunity of planning for what we were facing. The benefit of summer provides us the space to reflect on our approach for autumn.

Q. If parents or guardians decide not to put their students in a Catholic school because of the coronavirus, can Catholic schools work with those families to ensure their children can still receive a Catholic education?

A. Catholic schools are encouraged to work with families to create alternative learning plans for Catholic school students who may not be able to return to in-person learning this fall. We recognize that the experience of learning in the classroom is irreplaceable in many ways. It is good to remember that this situation that we are facing together with COVID-19 is transitory, it won’t last forever. While nothing ever goes back to exactly the way we remember it, with the help of God we will be together again teaching and learning in Catholic schools classrooms.

Q. What is the most important thing you would like parents to know as they enter an uncertain fall in regards to sending their children to a Catholic school during the pandemic?

A. Catholic education is a priority of the Church. The Church stands ready to accompany families in the essential work of educating children in the light of faith. With the information that is currently available, the prudential way to continue this mission is by preparing our Catholic schools now to safely welcome students back into school buildings for in-person learning this fall.

— The Catholic Spirit

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