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School officials reflect on their second academic year amid the COVID-19 pandemic

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The end of any academic year comes with accomplishments to look back on, yet for 2020-21 perhaps the most significant feat diocesan schools achieved was turning the extraordinary into the mundane.

Ten months ago, Virginians had just regained more freedom to leave their homes for nonessential retail trips and restaurant meals, as the commonwealth entered phase three of its COVID-19 recovery plan. Then, July 21, Fairfax County Public Schools officially announced that the upcoming academic year would be entirely virtual. It would be seven months before even small groups of their students returned to classrooms.

The very next day, July 22, Bishop Michael F. Burbidge, Superintendent of Catholic Schools Joseph E. Vorbach and others huddled with principals and pastors from across the diocese for a virtual meeting to discuss the academic year ahead and their comprehensive plans to safely bring faculty and teachers back to the classroom in a few weeks. In a year that felt like a marathon, Vorbach said what stands out is that final pep talk before the starting gun.

"It was a moment when they heard directly from Bishop the kind of vision that he subsequently routinely articulated," Vorbach recalled. Namely, follow local and state guidance, listen to your stakeholders and incorporate their input into reopening plans that, while similar, contained many variations reflecting attributes unique to each school. "Then (the reopening) just happened.

"I hope they get some time to really reflect this summer on their leadership," he said, which exhibited "fortitude and grace."

As with any marathon, these runners hit walls. 

"There was a milestone for each one in their own way," said Renee White, assistant superintendent for enrollment and marketing. After that, many responded, "I think I can get to the next step."

For many, that barrier came in October. After nearly two months and the emergence of positive COVID-19 tests among students, a collective fear permeated the school system and diocesan Catholic Schools Office: that the situation was untenable and they would not finish the academic year in person.

Recognizing this, Vorbach’s team reminded school administrators that, aside from core academic requirements that must be maintained, each school has wide latitude in how they educate children and can exercise sound judgment to alleviate the pressure on everyone, particularly teachers.

School administrators’ innovation skills kicked into another gear. Some adopted more flexible class schedules; others instituted more virtual learning, especially after holiday breaks, when students tend to travel and viruses spread more easily; one school issued faculty comfy scrubs and tennis shoes to boost morale.

"We saw a lot of creativity and I think it was necessary," White said. The PTOs stepped up as well, showering teachers with thank you lunches, treats and other goodies.

Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria’s Head of School Kathleen McNutt will always remember the first day of having faculty back in the building after stay-at-home orders and days of wandering the halls alone. "It was an emotional moment," she said, and they supported one another.

Connection was a primary theme for the year, as the pandemic necessitated new ways to connect as shifting government decisions forced continuous revisions to operating plans. Through it all, Ireton teachers and nurses were her heroes and the students disproved the naysayers who doubted their adherence to mask-wearing and other requirements. "Our students were just outstanding. They understood the sacrifice for the good of others."

St. Louis School in Alexandria has a diverse group of approximately 500 students in kindergarten through eighth grade from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. The highly involved parents, who volunteer regularly, scaled back this year because of the pandemic, according to Principal Anne Dyke.

"Our mantra this year has been grace, patience and flexibility," she said. "This pandemic has shown us to pivot with grace and patience."

St. Louis started the year with approximately 75 full-time, virtual students. That number is now down to 15 as the school demonstrated it could operate safely and parents’ comfort levels increased. 

"As much as there has been that uncertainty and anxiety, and there is, there has been a lot of laughter and joy, too, especially the second half of the year."

Sally Nicholson, principal of St. Patrick School in Fredericksburg, always tries to stay one step ahead. Well before state-ordered shutdowns were on the horizon, she asked the staff to research virtual learning technologies and methods. Despite the plexiglass and other limitations, she said the 200 students at the K-8 school have not missed a beat.

"I have never worked with a group of adults that has been so trusting, so brave and so talented," she said, noting they adopted a mindset of "what can we do, not what can’t we do. They took that theme and they ran with it."

Both Dyke and Nicholson reported a surge in enrollment demand for this year. A silver lining of the pandemic: many discovered the benefits of Catholic schools. White believes many new Catholic school families will return next year.

As for where the faculty and administrators are now on the trail?

"They can see the finish line," Vorbach said. "They can hear the music playing, but they’re not done yet."

Schweers can be reached at editorial@catholicherald.com

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021