“Welcome Back.” These two words can be associated with many of life’s major moments and it is these two words that teachers, principals and all those in Catholic schools in the Diocese look forward to saying this August. After months of planning, preparation and prayer, our Catholic schools are making plans to meet in-person for the start of the 2020-21 school year.
Daniel Breen, Secretary for Education and Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese of Harrisburg, led an extensive planning exercise to assist our 36 schools in preparing for the upcoming school year. “Our goals in planning were to take a prayerful approach to providing a Catholic education for our students; to maintain a holistic view of our students and of their needs; and to provide a safe, joyful school environment that follows the current scientific research on schooling during this pandemic. I believe we achieved that, though the work will continue. I am so grateful for the input and hard work of our principals and I am particularly grateful for the outstanding teamwork of our school reopening task force.”
In working with this taskforce, Breen has provided a framework to the Catholic schools outlining the health and safety, curriculum, technology, community and Catholic identity framework each school will follow for the coming year. The Diocesan Board of Education, Catholic Mutual and Bishop Ronald Gainer all reviewed and approved the plan.
“This task seemed overwhelming. It still does. In the end, it was a true blessing to work with this team. Their care for students, staff members, and all school families, their creative ideas, and their tireless work ethic drove this effort,” said John Cominsky, principal of Trinity High School and a member of the taskforce.
“What could have been a very draining task in planning our return was actually an energizing exercise of mission and it renewed my commitment and appreciation for the important ministry we do in Catholic education,” added Sister Danielle Truex, IHM, principal of Sacred Heart of Jesus School in Lancaster and also a member of the taskforce. “In all of our discussions and Zoom meetings, the mission was central and took on new life as we discussed how to adapt to these new circumstances.”
Both Cominsky and Truex said the unknowns of the pandemic and the sheer volume of everything to consider made developing the guidelines a challenge.
“In many ways, we were rethinking every procedure – arrival, eating lunch, traveling the hallways, scheduling classes, etc. – for entire schools. Eventually, the plan started to take shape and it was very exciting to see that we would be able to keep our students and faculty safe while still providing full time instruction, virtually and in person,” said Truex.
Jodi Reagan, principal of Saint Catherine Labouré School in Harrisburg and also a member of the taskforce, added that developing guidelines that were structured yet flexible was also a challenge.
“I think two of the most challenging parts of the development of the plan, aside from having to plan via Zoom meetings, was the uncertainty and changes of policies and expectations from various organizations throughout the months,” said Reagan. “Secondly would be the development of a plan that was general enough for all schools, yet left flexibility for schools to implement more specifics that were geared towards their own school community.”
Very aware of the enormity of the task at hand, the taskforce persevered, fully cognizant of how important their roles were to the start of the 2020-21 school year.
“I want our families to know that our planning was focused on achieving two important goods: the health and safety of every member of our community and making quality, Catholic education accessible for all of our students during this pandemic. We studied the CDC and PDE (Pennsylvania Department of Education) guidelines for reopening and have put every safety measure in place so that we can open in-person and stay open, adapt our protocols and procedures as the situation changes, and keep everyone healthy,” said Truex. She added that, in addition to the practical aspect of the guidelines, additional plans were made to meet the social, emotional, and spiritual needs that students will have, especially when returning after months of separation.
“A lot of collaboration, time, effort and prayer went into developing the Diocesan wide Health and Safety plan. This is a difficult and unsettling time for all of us and it is true now more than ever that the partnership and communication between the home and school is vital to a student’s success,” said Reagan. “It is important that everyone stays positive, patient, and supportive of the plan and its implementation. Things are constantly changing, and as they do, so too possibly will the plans, policies, expectations, and instructional delivery methods to students.”
The taskforce used “Leading with Hope” from The Greeley Center for Catholic Education, a template designed for Catholic schools that addresses five domains: Logistics and Planning; Creating and Maintaining Community; Curriculum and Instruction; Promoting Catholic Identity; and Technology Support.
“All of us on the Task Force want the students to learn in-person. There is really no substitute,” said Cominsky. “We will take the necessary steps to see that happen, but we also need the cooperation of students and families alike. We believe we can open our schools, but we need to be mindful of all safety guidelines before, during and after school.”
The guidelines include significant details of how each Catholic school is to craft a local plan to ensure, as much as possible, the health and safety of students, faculty and staff. Highlights of the plan in include:
- Each school will receive training in the CDC cleaning guidelines and will create a school-specific and stringent cleaning plan.
- All staff and student temperatures are to be taken at home before coming to school. Anyone with a temperature of 100.4 F or greater, or any specified symptom, is to remain home.
- Student cohorts will be established to minimize the number of people students interact with and to make contract tracing easier, while at the same time allowing for connection and community building.
- Classrooms will be set to maximize available space for social distancing for students in the classroom. Schools will implement state mandates including the use of face coverings. Each school is working hard to limit the use of masks in classrooms. When masks are needed, regular breaks will be provided for students. Outdoor classes, when possible, are also encouraged, weather permitting.
- Any presumptive positive or positive cases will be reported to the Department of Health and communicated to parents.
- The commitment to high quality teaching and learning continues. Teaching reviews, classroom observations and review of student assessments will occur.
- Blended instruction (in-person and virtual) is available to all parents.
- Schools will work to create a culture of joy, celebrating and recognizing their communities, people, accomplishments and the gift of a Catholic education.
- School Masses will continue. Each school will work with the local pastor to hold Mass in a way that is safe for all attending and follows Diocesan guidelines.
- All schools will post their local health and safety plans to their school website.
“Our schools are famous for setting high expectations and maintaining a strong standard of discipline. In this situation, especially among the older students, we will need to practice a great deal of self-discipline to keep everyone safe and to continue to learn in-person,” said Cominsky. “We need to be the selfless, generous people we are called to be to keep our communities safe and healthy, and to allow our students to come to school each day.”
“There is so much we have to look forward to during the 20/21 school year. Most importantly, we look forward to seeing the students, faculty and staff face to face. I also look forward to the challenge and change that the health and safety plan brings to the school year,” said Reagan.
“This experience has made me so grateful for the supportive school family we have at Sacred Heart, Lancaster. My faculty and staff, school board, and school families have rallied together to promote our mission and take care of one another and I consider myself blessed to be among such a wonderful community,” added Truex. “Our response to the pandemic communicates clearly the value of Catholic education in our world.”
In addition to Cominsky, Reagan and Truex, the taskforce included Crystal Noel, principal of St. Teresa of Calcutta, McSherrystown, and Dr. Keri Donaldson and Dr. Eric Hillson, both of whom have deep experience and expertise in epidemiology.
Details on how each local Catholic school is implementing the Diocesan guidelines can be found by reaching out to the school directly. More information on Catholic education in the Diocese of Harrisburg can be found at www.GoCatholicSchools.org.
(Photo by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)
By Rachel Bryson, M.S., The Catholic Witness