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Arlington diocese schools plan careful reopening, with options

First slide

The principal looked around the familiar hallways of her school with a pair of fresh eyes. They definitely needed to replace the water fountains, perhaps with a touchless water bottle filling station? Hand sanitizer should be outside every classroom door. Could desks be pushed farther apart? Could they be outfitted with plexiglass barriers? And if all these changes and more were made, would they be able to safely have in-person instruction in the fall?

After examining her surroundings, consulting the guidelines of health experts and talking it over with others in the community, Principal Sally Nicholson of St. Patrick School in Fredericksburg determined they would be able to safely welcome students back to school, five days a week. 

But a lot would be different. For one, students would have their temperature checked each morning in the carpool line. Everyone would be masked and socially distanced. The school would be cleaned and cleaned and cleaned. But they would be together again. 

“The overall feeling is relief that we’re all coming back,” said Nicholson. “Putting our plan out early and being very thorough with it and answering questions and being very upfront and transparent has given our families a chance to jump on board and trust that we’re doing the best we can.”

In contrast to many of the local public school districts that are offering 100 percent remote learning in the fall, at press time about two-thirds of diocesan schools will be fully open at the start of the school year, said Joseph Vorbach, superintendent of schools. The remaining schools will offer some hybrid of online and in-person instruction. Each school made the decision of how to approach instruction based on individual circumstances. 

Though it wasn’t always feasible, getting the children back in their desks five days a week has been the goal, said Bishop Michael F. Burbidge during a recent Walk Humbly Podcast. “We are very much determined to open our schools in the fall,” he said. “The parents know and the medical experts know that the emotional and mental health of children is at stake, and they need to be in a community with their friends in a learning environment. 

“But we will only do so if we can to the best of our abilities ensure the health and wellbeing of our students and our Catholic educators,” he said. “So, we have to allow for some flexibility. Each school is different — the size, the classrooms, the space — so we will allow our schools and our pastors and principals to figure out what they can do and what they can’t do.”

Over the summer, diocesan schools submitted their individualized reopening plans to the Office of Catholic  Schools and the Virginia Council for Private Education. “The school reopening plans need to articulate what the reentry will look like in terms of schedule, the drop-off procedures, the passing of students in the hallways, how they will create cohorts to limit the cross contacting, etc. — basically, the implementation in that school building of all manner of mitigation strategies and recommended best practices,” said Vorbach. 

The diocesan Office of Catholic Schools helped schools tap into funding provided by the federal coronavirus relief bill, the CARES Act, which many used to purchase personal protective equipment and other paraphernalia needed to keep buildings clean. 

Parents at Our Lady of Hope School in Potomac Falls are choosing if their kids attend the school or learn from home. This fall, 88 percent of students will be in the school building while the remaining 12 percent will watch a livestream of their class from home, said Mary Beth Pittman, principal.

“It’s almost like opening a new school because of all the procedures and policies you had in place prior to COVID-19, you’re having to rethink all that through,” she said. 

Based on the relatively low number of students for the large size of the building, St. Luke School in McLean plans to open for full-time, in-person instruction this fall, said Tanya Salewski, principal. As with other schools, going back has required a lot of adjustments, such as switching to online registration through the school app, installing air filtration systems and having teachers, instead of students, move from classroom to classroom. 

“We always make decisions with children at the center, and getting these young kids back in school — the risks of keeping them out far outweigh the risks of putting them back in,” said Salewski. “So, if we can do it safely, we owe it to them.”

Salewski is grateful to the teachers and staff who are willing to provide children a face-to-face education. “It’s not (something) teachers necessarily consider themselves but they are first responders,” said Salewski. “It is a job that today is a hazard, but we have a responsibility. I think the teachers are eager to get back, with the precautions.” 

Parent Jeff Sant feels that schools such as St. Luke have an opportunity to shine during this crisis. “Catholic schools are all about community,” he said. “There’s enough fear of the unknown out there that you take comfort in what you do know, which is the families here. It’s been a partnership from day one, that even though we don’t know what’s going to happen, we do know that we can rely on each other.”

Some diocesan Catholic schools such as St. Luke have seen an increase in enrollment since the pandemic began. The school has accepted dozens of new students since the start of the pandemic and now is at capacity with 250 students with a waitlist of about 40 children. “We’re really hoping that families who come to us are ones that have always thought about Catholic education and now is the time that they’re seeking it out,” said Salewski. “As a ministry of the parish, it’s great to welcome parish families and we have welcomed quite a few.”

At this time last year, St. Patrick School had 165 students. It now has 205 and a waiting list, which the principal attributes to a new marketing plan, word of mouth about their successful virtual roll-out in the spring and the remote learning offered at nearby public schools. 

While many Catholic school communities are excited to return to school, others who have or live with people who have underlying health conditions are still hesitant to go back. To provide these students and teachers with an opportunity to study and teach in a Catholic environment, the diocese is looking to launch an online school this fall. “It’s still a hypothetical, but we are exploring the creation of a diocesan virtual school. We would staff it with teachers who are medically unable to return to the classroom and it would be available to families who want their child to be in a fully online environment,” said Vorbach. “There’s been a pretty high expression of interest in it. It will be a bit of a hustle to get it off the ground but we’re trying to do it.”

Whether the schools provide online or in-person education, Vorbach believes the months of hard work have made Catholic educators better positioned to fulfill their role of evangelization and education. “(We have an) evangelical opportunity before us,” he said. “There’s been a lot of discussion nationally about the closure of schools and yet here as August is upon us, we’re in a position where potentially a number of our schools could have an increased enrollment. We clearly would want to make the most of that.”

At the start of the pandemic, many of the diocesan Catholics schools quickly launched into e-learning, while several public school districts struggled to make the switch. Vorbach believes that diocesan Catholic schools can use the same agility and creativity that brought them online as they return to the classroom under these challenging circumstances. 

“We’ve grown a lot as a community of educators in the last couple of months,” said Vorbach. “And we’re going to leverage all that growth to the benefit of Catholic education.”


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020