Teachers prepare for an unusual school year

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A student with special needs connects with educational assistant Theresa Bennett over a video call through a new virtual program called RISE at Home. (CNS Photo/courtesy Star of the Sea School via Canadian Catholic News)

When the calendar hits mid-July, Timothy McCormick in most years would be excited about the upcoming school year.

But this year is different for McCormick, who teaches theology at Bishop Foley Catholic High School in Madison Heights, Michigan.

“There’s more apprehension this year just because of the unknown,” McCormick told Our Sunday Visitor. “I trust everybody I work with, and I love my school and everything. I know they’re doing their best, but things are so unpredictable. You’re just never sure about everything.”

McCormick’s sentiments are not uncommon among Catholic educators, who are dedicated to their school communities and believe that in-person instruction is the best option for their students’ education. But the serious health risks posed by the novel coronavirus still gives them reason for pause.

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

“As parents ourselves, we’re trying to make the best decisions for our children,” said McCormick, a father of three young children, one of whom was supposed to begin preschool this year. McCormick and his wife are keeping that child home this year. McCormick said his biggest worry is “bringing something home.”

“All you can do is do the absolute best you can,” McCormick said. “I think in some ways, there’s no good, easy or perfect decision here. I think we’re all resigned to the fact that we’re going to have to see how it goes and be flexible.”

That would describe the approach being taken this year by Matthew Tyson, who teaches English literature at Sacred Heart of Jesus School in Anniston, Alabama.

“I could get a phone call from my principal tomorrow telling me that something, or everything, has changed,” said Tyson, whose school is set to resume in-person classes on Aug. 11.

“Obviously it’s going to be a little more work this year that we’re going to have to do and it’s gonna be a little more frustrating, but that’s the life of being a teacher,” Tyson told Our Sunday Visitor.

“It is what it is. And frankly, if it wasn’t this, it’d be something else,” Tyson added. “As a teacher, you’re always dealing with something.”

The challenges and uncertainties facing classroom teachers this year are also being felt by their principals, many of whom are responsible for their own school buildings’ new policies and procedures to mitigate the risk of teachers and students being exposed to the coronavirus.

“From the time we closed last March to the end of May, I read and read and read,” said Jill Gould, the principal of St. Patrick School in Wentzville, Missouri, which is located in the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

Gould studied up on the available literature on COVID-19, read blogs from educators who were dealing with the pandemic, and joined Facebook groups where school principals from around the world shared best practices and their own experiences in keeping children and teachers safe.

“Every time you turn around, you realize you missed something. It doesn’t matter how hard you try to cover everything,” Gould told Our Sunday Visitor as she typed up a Q&A email to answer the most common questions from her school community’s parents.

Many of those questions dealt with the kind of facemasks that children have to wear at school, how dismissal will work at the end of the day, and how a child’s education would be impacted if they had to be quarantined at home for a few days.

“It’s a sticky wicket,” Gould said. “But we are prepared. It has been a long road this summer for our teachers. They’ve been doing a lot of preparation.”

For Tyson, the preparation this year includes having lesson plans for classroom learning and virtual instruction.

“Yeah, developing online classes is going to be a little bit extra work,” he said. “We’re being encouraged to use Google Classroom. Our principal is trying to get new technology in the classrooms to make it easier to record ourselves while we’re teaching, and making sure the students have an iPad or laptop so they have access to the technology they need.”

Tyson, a father of three young children, said he and his wife decided not to send them to school this year.

“Our decision has nothing to do with any lack of confidence in the administration,” he said. “They’re little and they’re not going to be as conscious of their surroundings or social distancing and things like that as the older kids are going to be. And with my wife being pregnant, we’re mitigating as much risk as possible. So if I’m the only one leaving the house, then we know exactly where I am, what I’m doing, where I’m going, and it’s easier for us to make sure we’re keeping tally of all the contacts I’m having.”

If anything, Tyson said he actually has a lot of confidence in the work his school administration has put in to keep him and his students safe.

“Even though things are pretty nerve-wracking right now, I still feel pretty confident and pretty good,” Tyson said. “Obviously, I’m a little bit nervous. Everybody is a little bit nervous because you just don’t know, but I feel really safe and have a lot of confidence and pride in what our administration has done to make sure that the students, staff and teachers are all safe.”

McCormick said school officials in the Archdiocese of Detroit have also “done a nice job” in relaying important public health information from the state to enable teachers and principals to implement effective safety protocols.

“You know, I don’t think I’ve spoken with anybody that thinks we’re all going to be able to make it through the whole year without any disruptions to schedules,” McCormick said. “I don’t think that’s going to happen. Maybe it will, and that would be wonderful, but probably not.”

Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.

Brian Fraga

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.