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Catholic schools power through a trying year

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The biggest triumph was getting through the door. From the start of the 2020-21 school year, Catholic schools throughout the Arlington diocese were able to offer in-person learning to students, as well as online schooling. But that feat didn’t come without challenges, many of them ongoing. Still, there are glimmers of hope that things are slowly returning to normal.


With encouragement from Bishop Michael F. Burbidge, diocesan school leaders in consultation with their communities made individualized plans for how best to return students to classrooms. Partly in thanks to those protocols, on the whole, few people have contracted COVID-19 this school year, said Joseph Vorbach, diocesan superintendent of schools.


“Of the 16,700 students (in the diocese), the number of positive cases is very low, and that’s really a tribute to all involved, because families have to be part of making this work,” he said. “Across the board, what I’ve heard is that the student compliance with the protocols has been really strong, (because) they want to be in school with their friends.”


At the start of the school year there were no cases, but by the end of October it began to pick up, said Vorbach. By the close of 2020, “75 percent of our schools had had to work through a case of COVID-19,” he said. How those incidents impacted the larger school community varied based on recommendations from public health authorities, said Vorbach. “Sometimes it was, quarantine the fifth grade. Or it might just be that these couple of kids need to quarantine.” Eventually, in some cases whole schools shifted to online distance learning for a week or two.


Even without positive cases, schools have had a lot on their plates. They had to purchase sanitation equipment and new technology. Though interest in Catholic education was high, due in part to social distancing space limitations, some schools were unable to accept new students. Vorbach said there are about 200 fewer children enrolled in diocesan schools this year. And in terms of education, testing is still inconclusive as to whether or not students’ learning has been negatively impacted by the pandemic.


The statewide limitations on large gatherings made dances, concerts, plays and packed stadiums a thing of yesteryear. But clubs found ways to adapt and sports are slowly returning. Some high school athletes who play winter sports are able to practice with their teammates. Some are competing against other schools sans spectators. Schools in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference — Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria and St. Paul VI Catholic High School in Chantilly — committed to a set schedule. Fall sport athletes, including football players, will make up their season in some form during March and April. Spring sporting activities will be held April through June.


Another sign of hope is the coronavirus vaccine, which has been available to school nurses for several weeks and more recently to teachers. Many educators already have received their first dose or have appointments to get vaccinated.


Last fall, the diocese created St. Isidore of Seville Diocesan Virtual School for families who wanted a fully online learning experience during the pandemic. But the diocese plans to continue the virtual school past the pandemic. Though some of St. Isidore’s 150 students may return to their parish schools next year, the Office of Catholic Schools sees a future for online learning. “We intend to run it next year and going forward. We think it can fill a niche in the ecosystem of Catholic education in the diocese,” said Vorbach. “It’s been a nice success story.”


Looking back at the last few months, Vorbach is thankful for what school leaders have been able to accomplish for their students. “I’m grateful for Bishop Burbidge’s support of the schools, for the leadership the principals have exercised at the local level with the help of their pastors. I’m grateful for the can-do spirit that has permeated every aspect of problem-solving during this time,” he said. “(Educators) figured out ways to make things work at the schools. They can be really proud of what they’ve done.” 


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021