‘It’ll be a challenging year’: How Catholic schools are staying on mission amid the pandemic

7 mins read
Catholic School Mass
Susana Solorza, a Spanish teacher at Holy Name of Jesus Catholic School in Henderson, Ky., reads along with a student during a school Mass March 28, 2018. CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn

Flexibility will have to be the guiding principle this year for Catholic school administrators, principals, teachers, parents and students.

“We have a saying here, and that’s you just need to be like willow trees and bend,” said Kelly Laster, the principal of Holy Family Catholic School in Austin, Texas.

As of late July, Holy Family Catholic School was preparing to welcome back students for in-person learning this fall for the first time since March, when the novel coronavirus pandemic prompted officials in Austin and everywhere else in the country to close schools to the public.

Since then, Catholic school leaders across the United States have been consulting public health officials, local government leaders, education experts and families to come up with detailed reopening plans that they hope will keep students safe and prevent new outbreaks of COVID-19.

Related Reading: Teachers prepare for an unusual school year

But even after all the months of preparation, officials know the pandemic’s unpredictability could change all their plans at a moment’s notice.

“We have to be ready for having the school shut down and going virtual altogether, or just one class going virtual,” Laster said. “We have to be flexible with the way we’re starting school. It’s not going to be the traditional opening we’re all used to.”

Importance of in-person learning

Reopening the nation’s Catholic schools for in-person learning this academic year will look very different from state to state, even from one zip code to another in the same diocese, as the coronavirus surges in some areas but not in others.

“It’s a mixed situation. The reality is different all across the country,” said Kevin Baxter, the chief innovation officer for the National Catholic Educational Association. Baxter told Our Sunday Visitor that he has been impressed with how Catholic schools in general have responded since the pandemic gripped the United States this past spring.

Several alumni of Bishop Verot Catholic High School in Fort Myers, Fla., and current school choir members, sing along during an April 23, 2020, Zoom session to celebrate Christ. The virtual song meeting was orchestrated by Lisa Clark, the school’s theatre director. (CNS photo/Screen Grab)

“We’ve seen great examples around the country of innovation, creativity and resilience just in terms of the challenges that were faced,” Baxter said.

Literally overnight, Catholic schools this past March had to transition from classroom instruction to virtual learning. With no advance warning, teachers scrapped their old lesson plans and developed new pedagogical strategies using Zoom meetings or Google Classroom.

“We were very impressed with just how quickly Catholic schools everywhere moved to launch their virtual plans, in many cases putting them in place over a weekend,” Baxter said. “I think that leadership has been absolutely inspiring.”

In some respects, the distance learning and virtual classrooms worked better than expected, but instruction over the internet is not a long-term substitute for in-person education, according to the Catholic school teachers, principals and superintendents who spoke with Our Sunday Visitor.

“Virtual learning has built-in limitations. Learning in the human realm requires socialization,” said Paul Escala, the superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which will open the 2020-21 school year with distance learning.

student on computer
Hazeline Panditaratne completes her math assessments on her computer in her Broward County, Fla., home May 29, 2020. (CNS photo/Maria Alejandra Cardona, Reuters)

Archdiocesan schools were preparing to resume in-person instruction this fall, but the resurgent pandemic in California prompted Gov. Gavin Newsom in July to issue new requirements for school reopenings. The three counties where archdiocesan schools are located — Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara — are all on a state monitoring list, and are likely to remain on it through August.

We really had no choice but to announce a resumption of distance learning when we resume the school year in the fall,” Escala told Our Sunday Visitor. “Because this pandemic is so unpredictable, we don’t know where we will be in September. Our prayer is that we will be off this list by then.”

The governor’s move to flatten the curve in California upended months of meetings and planning by a task force of archdiocesan school principals, administrators, pastors and others who consulted county health officials and education experts, and sought guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We compiled the best thinking on this and put it through the lens of Catholic education,” Escala said. “We all know a big part of schooling, especially with our Catholic frame of mind, is that we miss our sacramental community. We come together as one faith family. We really miss and value that.”

Unique guidelines

While many families have reasonable concerns about sending their children back to school — especially those with already-compromised immune systems — surveys conducted by Catholic school systems across the country indicate that anywhere from 70% to 80% of their parents are eager to have their children return to the classroom. Doing so safely is the challenge.

“There’s a certain level of anxiety that is a part of all of this. I think a lot of times that comes from the absence of information,” said Todd Sweda, the senior director of the Office of Catholic Education and Formation, and the superintendent for secondary education, in the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

To compile a responsible schools reopening plan, Sweda told Our Sunday Visitor that an archdiocesan schools taskforce conducted focus groups and sought input from public health experts, the National Catholic Educational Association and other dioceses.

“If there was ever a time in our history when we had to leverage our very best thinking, it was during this time,” Sweda said. “They were given essential questions to address. Like, how would we do X under social distancing and if we were forced to return to online learning at any given time?”

Said Sweda, “Those focus groups went into some in-depth conversation and discussion, from which we were able to pull some overarching recommendations for planning to transition to in-person instruction in the fall.”

The guidance that emerged from those task force meetings call on individual schools in the Archdiocese of St. Louis to develop detailed operating plans based on their location, enrollment numbers, facility size and design, and information from local authorities.

“The elementary and secondary division planners took a look at three major areas,” Sweda said. “How to fulfill the Catholic mission of faith formation; what in the teaching and learning paradigm would need to change, if at all; and examining the operation and logistics of returning safely to the schools.”

The details vary from one school to another, but some general principles apply across the board: social distancing, an emphasis on hygiene and hand-washing, mandatory face coverings for teachers and most students during the day, and outdoor instruction when possible. In many schools this year, student drop-off and pick-up times will be staggered, as will lunch times.

“The school guidelines are very detailed, as to which doors you enter, which direction you walk in a given hallway, how many people can be in the bathroom at one time,” said Misty Poe, the superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Austin.

With schools in seven different counties, each with their own public health orders in effect, Poe told Our Sunday Visitor that each Catholic school in the Diocese of Austin crafted its own reopening plan after being given a baseline of principles and expectations. Her office is responsible for reviewing and approving each school’s plan.

Asked if she expects the upcoming academic year to be challenging, Poe smiled and said it would be “an exciting school year.”

“The good thing is that the schools are working to keep the cohorts together,” Poe said. “So if there is an outbreak in second grade, it may only be the second grade that has to quarantine and not the whole school.”

Even when in-classroom instruction is happening, any student in the Diocese of Austin will still have the option of remote learning from home, Poe said.

“It’ll be a challenging year. There’s no doubt about that,” Poe said. “But I think also with all challenges, there are opportunities. There are gifts that are going to come out of this. From this past March until now, we’ve learned of new ways to provide professional development. For kids who are sick and can’t return to school, this now is a new option for them to continue their Catholic education remotely.”

Said Poe, “I think this has all given us an opportunity to look at things very differently and see how some things we’ve been doing can continue to benefit us beyond COVID.”

Social-distancing dividers for students at St. Benedict School in Montebello, Calif., are seen July 14, 2020. (CNS photo/Lucy Nicholson, Reuters)


The ‘hidden curriculum’

Online learning is a good substitute when there is no other choice, but in-person learning is still the most ideal option for the whole development of students, said Melanie B. Palmisano, the superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

“Especially in Catholic education, we just don’t impart information to our children. We form the child,” Palmisano said. “It’s sometimes called the hidden curriculum, which I think might be the most important curriculum, because it helps in the formation and development of the person.”

Schools in the Diocese of Baton Rouge were set to open in early August. Consultants from Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge visited each school in the diocese and offered recommendations on classroom configurations, lunch times, recess and best practices for students who walk in the hallways between classes.

As in other locations, parents in the Diocese of Baton Rouge may have to log into their child’s school app every morning and answer a series of health-related questions. Some schools may possibly have daily temperature checks of all students.

Father Andrew Forsythe, chaplain and theology teacher at Pope John Paul II High School in Hendersonville, Tenn., celebrates a private Mass in the school’s parking lot March 26, 2020. CNS photo/Andy Telli, Tennessee Register

Said Palmisano: “When you put in place the different safety measures such as making sure nobody has symptoms when they come into the building, whether they’re staff or a student, making sure we wash hands frequently, making sure we wear face-masks the vast majority of the time, social distancing to the best of our ability … when you put all that in place, it greatly reduces the probability that infectional spread on a school campus happens. And if an infection is going to spread, it’s probably not going to be on a school campus, because the students and the faculty are following those strict protocols.”

Of course, the most strict protocols do not guarantee that there still won’t be disruptions this year. If anything, Catholic educators are counting on it. They fully expect at some point between now and next summer that their schools will be partly or totally shut down for a week or two, possibly longer.

But even amid that uncertainty, Catholic educators are doing their best to maintain a sense of normalcy. Laster, the principal of Holy Family Catholic High School in Austin, said her faculty has a new “joy committee.”

“We’re going to think of some ways to get everyone excited about school starting,” Laster said. “There are a lot of things we can do to infuse our Catholic faith into the classroom, whether it’s virtual or in-person, and give the kids some normalcy. I think that’s the biggest piece they need: some normalcy.”

Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.

Brian Fraga

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.