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Catholic schools committed to the mission

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Last school year, the Arlington diocese made headlines when two-thirds of its schools offered fully in-person education, and a third offered a hybrid in-person/online schooling option. This year, all students are back in school with fewer pandemic restrictions than before. 

The State Health Commissioner issued an order Aug. 12 requiring all individuals to wear masks indoors at public and private K-12 schools in Virginia. But otherwise, schools are building reopening plans with mitigation strategies that reflect their local needs, said Joseph Vorbach, diocesan superintendent of schools. 

“The state public health commissioner and the Department of Education have provided a step-by-step process for planning for reopening,” he said. “The schools have been directed by us to prepare reopening plans that show they are using that template to make a plan that makes the most sense for them and their environment.

“With the delta variant and rising cases, (schools) are not getting the luxury of a more back-to-normal opening,” he said. “But they know they don’t want concurrent instruction (simultaneous in-person and virtual schooling) — families don’t like it, kids don’t like it and it places a huge demand on teachers. It’s hard to teach to the computer and the classroom at the same time.” Still, if needed, some schools may occasionally use virtual instruction, said Vorbach. 

COVID-19 mitigation policies vary. In some, Plexiglas desk separators are gone, along with temperature checks. Some schools have installed new air filters, some are keeping classroom windows open. Many schools are no longer grouping their students in cohorts. Vaccination for staff and older students is encouraged but not required. Six feet of social distancing last year left many schools unable to accept new students, said Vorbach, but the current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation of 3 feet has made fuller classrooms possible. 

The diocese announced that enrollment for the 2021-22 academic year has jumped more than 6 percent over last year’s enrollment and there are nearly 17,000 students in diocesan schools. Vorbach believes word of mouth about the quality of the education, as well as admiration that diocesan schools were able to remain open in person, helped increase demand. “Right now I know a number of our schools have waiting lists that are so long they’re not accepting additional names.”

To accommodate parents who wanted fully online learning for their children last school year, the diocese created the St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School and 150 students were enrolled. Renamed this year, the St. Isidore Academy continues through Queen of Apostles School in Alexandria as a smaller, virtual schoolhouse.

Diocesan high schools are gearing up for fall sports: football, cross-country, cheerleading, volleyball and soccer. The Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association released coronavirus mitigation guidelines Aug. 9.

Unless otherwise stipulated by a host school or team, “for outside fall sports there will not be a face mask requirement for players, coaches and participants. There will be no limitations on spectators,” it said. “Fall indoor sports (girls volleyball) will have a mask requirement for spectators, coaches and team members not participating in the match. Participants in the match will not be required to wear a mask.” Social distancing and frequent sanitizing is encouraged. 

Though school communities have the experience of the past year and fewer constraints for the foreseeable future, this school year will still be a challenge — one that they’re all facing together, said Vorbach.

“The team effort that you see at every school, of the nurses and the way they collaborate, the way the principals are sharing information, sharing examples, sharing reopening plan drafts — it’s all reflective of a bunch of people who are really committed to the mission of Catholic education,” said Vorbach. “They are doing everything they can with the resources they have to make it work again this year, and make it work well.” 


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021