It’s the halfway point of the academic year, and the midterm report on Diocesan schools illustrates a largely successful continuation of in-person education since classes began in the fall.
The doors of the 36 Catholic schools across the Diocese remain open for in-class instruction. Administrators credit the monumental achievement to the resolve and sacrifice displayed by the teachers, staff, students and families of the school communities.
“Collectively, we should feel good, as it is a real accomplishment to have our schools open for in-person instruction in week 19 of the school year,” said Daniel Breen, Diocesan Secretary for Education and Superintendent of Catholic Schools.
“The term ‘success’ can be hard to use, as it is difficult to see any student or staff member sick; but the fact is that we can trace, with confidence, the origin of most of the COVID cases we have seen to events outside of school. Our schools have been, and remain, the safest places for students to be. Catholic schools have always been great in establishing rules and in following them; that disciplined culture really helps us in times like these,” Breen told The Catholic Witness.
It’s an effort that began well in advance of the start of the school year, as the Diocese assembled a taskforce to offer a framework for schools as they returned for in-person learning in the fall.
The taskforce used “Leading with Hope” from The Greeley Center for Catholic Education, a template designed for Catholic schools that addresses Logistics and Planning; Creating and Maintaining Community; Curriculum and Instruction; Promoting Catholic Identity; and Technology Support.
Among the plan’s highlights: cleaning guidelines, temperature screenings, contact tracing, classroom settings, face coverings, and how to report presumptive or positive cases.
“While the taskforce provided a solid reopening framework and template, the success of our schools has depended on our principals to adjust the plan to the individual school and to lead the process in that building; on the teachers, who saw that the school plan was executed daily; and on our school families, whose cooperation was so key to our success,” Breen remarked. “It has been a real community effort to get our schools open and to keep them open.”
“I think it is a blessing that we have been able to maintain our in-person instruction as long as we have,” said Jodi Reagan, principal of St. Catherine Labouré School in Harrisburg.
As a member of the taskforce, Reagan said there were concerns of whether Diocesan schools would return to remote learning within a month of the start of the semester, “and here we are, almost six months into the school year and we have not had to shut down yet. I contribute this to the diligence and cooperation of our families, staff, and students at following the health, safety, and quarantine guidelines. We pray that the remainder of this school year goes as smoothly and successfully as the first half has gone,” she said.
In addition to the overwhelmingly successful continuation of in-person instruction and their mitigation of the spread of COVID, half of the Diocese’s schools have seen an increase in enrollment this school year, with several having wait lists for potential families.
“It is true that, at the start of the school year, communities saw our Catholic schools as a big experiment, since public schools were often teaching in a virtual mode. Once they saw that we were operating safely and effectively, new families started to come our way,” Breen said. “I think these families also saw that, from the start, we have tried, selflessly, to provide what our students need. Our students need to be in school as much as possible. It is the best situation in which they can learn the Catholic faith and their academics.”
A Collective Effort
Meeting the monumental task of keeping students safe and schools open does not come without enormous effort and sacrifice. It can only be achieved through the determination of faculty, staff, parents and students in following state, CDC and Diocesan guidelines.
Vince Harper, principal of Bishop McDevitt High School, said this resolve has made the school’s efforts successful.
“The staff have dedicated themselves to the instruction of students. They know how important it is for students to have face-to-face instruction. Despite the fact that they are dealing with the same pandemic issues as everyone else in the community, they’ve come in safely to work with students to try to make things as normal as they can for students,” he said.
“The resiliency that our parents have had with being transparent and informing us of when kids are ill or when there is a possible case has also been critical,” he added. “That gives us the opportunity to respond in order to keep the rest of the students and staff safe, and manage the situations.”
Harper also commended the school’s custodial crew, which “works day in and day out to keep this place pristine and clean. They sanitize every evening to ensure that when students and staff return, every classroom and common area has been disinfected. They are our unsung heroes in helping minimize any transmission.”
Sister Danielle Truex, IHM, principal of Sacred Heart of Jesus School in Lancaster, echoed Harper’s sentiments, saying the resolve of the school community is the bedrock for success.
“There are no procedures, no rules, no actions that could have made this work without that foundation,” she said. “Our parents, our faculty and our staff have taken the protocols and procedures and put them into place because they love our kids. They have all collectively sacrificed – and it’s been a joyful sacrifice to give our kids the best that we can. Without the collective sense of mission that our whole school shares, we would have never been so successful in this endeavor. I’m so grateful for everyone in this community who has sacrificed and followed protocols even when they were difficult, because we see the greats benefit of it. Our kids are here, they’re happy, they’re thriving, and for now, we are living the best possible reality.”
Several principals told The Witness that keeping students in school continues to be the reward for the tireless efforts of spacing out desks, finding creative ways to use space, setting-up technology for remote learning, installing hand-sanitizing stations, taking temperatures, limiting or cancelling events, wearing masks and continually cleaning everything from desks and doors to recess equipment.
“I will say that the stress of teaching both in person and online, along with having students and staff maintain social distancing, has taken a toll on everyone,” Reagan pointed out. “While it causes burnout a little quicker than a regular school year, the teachers still come in with smiles on their faces and conduct themselves professionally every day. The parents and students are still arriving to school well prepared each day, and those who are online are also joining class and completing assignments as expected.”
“It requires teachers to truly be heroes – flexible, determined, selfless and tireless,” said John Cominsky, principal of Trinity High School in Camp Hill. “We’re halfway through the year. Our teachers are asking for time to plan, and we’re trying to see they get that. You have to be good to yourself to pull this off, and I say that not only about Trinity, but about all of our schools. People are counting on our schools to be open, and, as much as possible, it is business as usual.”
The Tools for the Task
Diocesan schools follow the mitigation guidelines provided by the state, the CDC and the Diocese, but they’ve also implemented their own ideas and a bit of ingenuity to help the cause.
At Bishop McDevitt, home to 715 students and some 75 staff, new traffic flow patterns were implemented in the hallways and in the cafeteria to help keep students physically distanced.
The school turned to technology as well, with enhanced equipment in the classrooms to allow students learning from home to connect with their class in real time. Activities went the way of technology, too, with live streams of the school’s virtual Christmas concert and the broadcast of school Mass into all classrooms as individual classes take turns participating in person in Finestra Hall.
“We’re trying to have the same activities, just in different ways, so at least the kids are getting some of the normal experience as possible,” Harper said.
At Trinity, its 500 students receive temperature screenings via a newly-purchased thermal-imaging camera as they arrive for the start of each day. Other mitigation efforts there include the set-up of individual desks in the cafeteria so students remain distanced during lunch, and livestreaming capability in the classrooms for those learning at home.
Learning-at-home is an option offered in Diocesan schools. Students might need to stay home because of their own health concerns, or for the health of those with whom they live.
“In terms of safety, we’re in a grand balancing act. The key is the partnership with families,” Cominsky said. “We provide options for families to make those critical choices, given what they’re most comfortable with regarding their own specific health. If you have a mom or dad or grandparent in your home who is vulnerable, then you learn from home; and what you’re learning from home comes care of a livestream that still connects you to your classroom. We have different options that meet different contexts, and that is all that anybody can really ask.”
A new initiative at Sacred Heart School is focusing on students’ emotional wellbeing. A counselor from IU-13 holds a regularly-scheduled class with middle-school students, focusing on social and emotional health. The school’s counselor meets with students in K-5, individually and in small groups, to help them process their emotions.
“From the very beginning, part of the Diocesan plan was to care for the social and emotional needs of our students, because those are a fundamental part of their spiritual life,” Sister Danielle said. “Some students have parents who are healthcare workers, and others are feeling the effects of the stress of the adults in their life. We’re being extremely intentional in making sure that their social and emotional needs are top priorities. We know that kids can’t learn and be academically successful if those needs are not met.”
Even with the lengthy list of protocols and guidelines in place, Diocesan schools have not been completely immune to COVID cases. But strategic plans of action have helped alleviate the spread. Among those actions are plans for deep cleaning, contact tracing, distance learning and connection with two volunteer epidemiologists at the schools’ disposal.
The schools’ taskforce established a protocol for COVID cases early on, with principals reporting cases to the Diocesan Superintendent. From there, consultation with an epidemiologist and an evidence-based approach determine procedures for communication to the school community, cleaning and quarantining. The schools also relay that information to the Board of Health.
“A lot falls on the principal in these situations, but they have carried the burden well and they deserve a ton of credit,” Breen said.
“One helpful and successful practice was a weekly survey of all principals to make sure we had accurate data on all COVID cases and quarantines and related issues,” he added. “We then were able to look at that data in light of the situation in the county in which the school is located and make any adjustments to procedures if needed.”
According to the Diocesan Education Department, most of the COVID cases in Diocesan schools have been traced to locations other than the schools themselves.
“I would like our school communities to take a moment to realize what amazing work our teachers are doing during this pandemic,” Breen remarked. “They are taking care of their own families and naturally have concerns for their own health, but they are the ones who make the school plans work; they are the ones teaching not only in-person but also often teaching at-home students simultaneously. They are the ones who are quickly switching modes of teaching in order to meet everyone’s needs. I thank God for them and their remarkable dedication.”
A successful first half of the school year has certainly been cause for celebration in Diocesan schools.
“I’m so very proud of all of our schools,” Cominsky said. “There is a lot to be thankful for. Who knows what the future will hold, but we are doing everything possible to see that our kids are in school.
“And the students have been fabulous,” he added. “They know they’re not having all the things they normally would, but they have taken it all in stride. Many of them have moved back and forth between in-person and remote instruction as a precaution, and they do it because they are appreciative of the effort to remain open.”
The diligence and resolve of the school communities is something to celebrate, Sister Danielle observed. “Everyone is all in, and that’s why we’ve been so successful.”
“It’s also work digging into, and documenting, because something extraordinary is happening in our schools,” she added. “I feel the foundation of our success has been our community, and I’m sure that if you ask every principal and every teacher in our schools, they would be able to share an experience that reinvigorated the sense of mission and pride in what we’re providing to our children in Catholic schools.”
(Learn more about Catholic schools in the Diocese and their safety guidelines at www.gocatholicschools.org.)
(Sacred Heart, Trinity and St. Catherine Labouré photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness. Bishop McDevitt photos courtesy of Erin Davis.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness