Catholic school students return to the classroom

BRAINTREE -- The first day of a new school year can be an exciting and nerve-wracking event in the best of circumstances, but even more so when implementing new protocols to prevent the spread of a virus during a pandemic.

After a quick-change to remote learning when schools were ordered closed in the spring, followed by months of planning and preparation over the summer, Catholic schools are beginning the 2020-2021 academic year with new protocols to ensure students' safety for in-person learning, as well as options for hybrid and remote learning for those who cannot or prefer not to come.

Since some parents wish to keep their children home to prevent them from being exposed to the coronavirus, and the possibility of a resurgence cannot be discounted, schools have had to prepare three different models of learning: completely in-person instruction, completely remote instruction, and a hybrid model combining the two. The Pilot spoke with several schools that reported a majority of students are returning for in-person instruction.

Cynthia Donovan, principal of Our Lady of the Assumption School in Lynnfield, said making the necessary preparations was "challenging," partly because guidelines and requirements, such as those provided by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), kept changing over the summer.

In June, Our Lady of the Assumption School conducted a survey asking parents what learning method they would prefer. According to Donovan, 87 percent of the parents said they wanted their children to return to the classroom.

To prepare for the new year, Donovan took a class in crisis leadership and participated in various other classes and webinars. The school held a fundraiser to purchase personal protective equipment (PPE), raising about $21,000 for gloves, masks, and gowns. Air purifiers were ordered for each of the classrooms, and the air conditioning and heating systems were cleaned.

Our Lady of the Assumption School began instruction for grades one through eight on Sept. 2, with 90 percent of the students coming in person. Signs and decals reminded parents to conduct wellness checks with their children, making sure they have no symptoms of the coronavirus, before sending them to school.

Sitting at desks arranged six feet apart, the students have plexiglass dividers that they use when they take their periodic "mask breaks," a few minutes to take off the masks they must wear throughout the day. Teachers are encouraged to take their classes outside for lunch as well as recess.

Donovan said that the students "have adapted" and that she had expected anxiety on the first day to be much higher than it turned out to be.

She said that two students, twins, had signed up for the hybrid model, which meant coming into school only two days a week. Their first day of school was Sept. 3, and afterward, they told their parents they felt safe at school and wanted to have in-person instruction every day.

Donovan said she thinks the community has grown stronger through the pandemic.

"I feel that we have come out stronger and are a tighter community for it. So if I have to look at one positive, that would be it," she said.

St. Catherine of Siena School in Norwood also began its term on Sept. 2. Principal Beth Tanner reported that 95 percent of the students returned for in-person instruction while five percent opted for remote learning.

"When I looked out to the schoolyard and saw the families, I was so happy," said kindergarten teacher Joan Sullivan Sept. 8.

She added, "The parents were very happy and the kids were, I think, thrilled to be back with their friends."

Rosanne Dulong, a third-grade teacher at St. Catherine of Siena School, said she did not know what to expect upon returning.

"I knew that the school had done everything possible to ensure the safety of the children and the staff. They've been working since we closed in March. And so, in that respect, I knew that going into it, we'd be okay, but I didn't know how the children would react," she said, speaking to The Pilot on Sept. 8.

After months of being apart from their friends, the children naturally wanted to be together, and Dulong said she found herself having to tell them to keep their distance from each other on the first day of school. However, she said, they were "wonderful" about keeping their masks on.

Sullivan and Dulong both noted how their classrooms had to change in order to ensure social distancing.

Dulong's rugs, pillows, and bookshelves are gone. To keep desks six feet apart, some of them have been pushed all the way up to the blackboard. Sullivan had to remove many classroom items, such as puppets and puzzles, which were boxed up and placed in storage. She took home her math tools, washed and disinfected them, and put them in bags labeled with students' names, so that each student could have their own to use.

Dulong spoke about the challenge of changing the way she teaches. When the school shut down in March, she learned how to use Zoom with her class, but this fall, she had to switch to Google Classroom. When she teaches a lesson, she must make sure her camera is on so one of her students can participate from home, and she must remember to include this student. Every 20 minutes, Dulong has to stop teaching to allow her students to remove their masks for a two-minute break.

"It's a whole different way of teaching for me, but I'm in a good place, I have a lot of support from the staff," Dulong said.

Tanner said it was "great to see all of the children back, whether they are remote or in person."

"I think the teachers are doing a fabulous job of shining God's light, through the computer or in person, regardless of whether the student is virtual or right there sitting in their seat," Tanner said.

The large classrooms of St. Columbkille Partnership School in Brighton easily provide enough space to spread students out for in-person instruction. But when it came to remote learning, the school took a different approach than many other Catholic schools in the archdiocese.

Jennifer Kowieski, the new head of St. Columbkille Partnership School, decided to hire three remote learning specialists to work with students who choose to learn from home. Almost 50 of the school's students are beginning the new year this way, making each specialist responsible for about 16 students.

"To have teachers who are dedicated simply to our remote learners makes me more confident that we can meet their needs," Kowieski said Aug. 24.

Kowieski said that if a resurgence of coronavirus cases forces a switch to completely remote learning, the school would use four days a week for core content. Fridays would be dedicated to specialist classes, which would give core content teachers a day to collaborate and plan for the following week. The specialist teachers' lessons would be live, whereas in the spring they recorded video lessons.

"Any person enjoys the chance to interact with others in a live setting, even if it's over Zoom, rather than (by) video," Kowieski said.

She said she looks forward to a time when students do not need to wear masks or learn via Zoom.

"Until then, we're going to do the absolute best in the situation that we're given," she said.

Immaculate Conception School in Revere had its students come in groups on different days for a one-day orientation. Students in kindergarten through grade two had their orientation on Sept. 8.

To help introduce children to the new protocols, the schools' two nurses greeted the arriving students at the edge of the school yard and escorted them to the front door, where they were given hand sanitizer to start the day.

"The excitement was definitely palpable. The children were excited, the staff was excited," said academic coordinator Donis Tracy.

Along with the school's principal and parish administrator, Tracy spent the summer reviewing the DESE's requirements and developing a plan to create a safe, healthy learning environment. They submitted this plan to Revere's public health department, which modified or added some precautions.

Clear acrylic screens have been installed on students' desks, air purifiers have been installed in each classroom, and a whole-school exhaust system has been installed to clear out the building's air and keep it circulating. In addition, hallways and stairways have been designated "one-way," and an extra lunch period has been added to the day to allow for greater distancing.

The school also upgraded its internet so students could engage in hybrid or remote learning, and the teachers received professional development training on technology and social-emotional learning.

Tracy said she thinks everyone is "cautiously optimistic."

"We all know that this pandemic has been something that no one could foresee, and no one could anticipate, but the families are very happy that they have been at least given the option to return in person," she said.