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At diocesan K-8 hybrid schools, focus is on safety, flexibility

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When Melissa Marchi pulls up a chair to read to her first graders at Our Lady of Hope School in Potomac Falls, she can look most of them right in the eye — but a few are watching through the electronic eye of a tiny new video camera atop a tall tripod in the front of the room.

“School looks a little bit different, but for students, it’s kind of a normal school day,” said Principal Mary Beth Pittman, who’s been at the school since it opened in 2005 and has been principal since 2007. One of the drivers behind the decision to offer in-person classes this fall — with an option for at-home learning — was knowing “how important it is for children to be together with their friends, and to have a regular school routine that was familiar to them,” she said. “Even if they’re online, they do get to see their teachers and friends every day.”

“All of our schools have welcomed students back, most in person all the time, but some with hybrid models,” said Joseph Vorbach, diocesan superintendent of schools. He said one-third of the diocese’s 37 parish schools are using some form of a hybrid model; all four diocesan high schools are hybrid as well.

Our Lady of Hope is the newest elementary school in the diocese, and with 200 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, it’s also one of the smallest. But hybrid instruction offers parents maximum flexibility and comfort in this most unusual pandemic year, Pittman said.

About 10 percent of students are currently remote, she said, adding that “a couple started at home and then decided to come back in person.” Class sizes are capped at 24, fewer for kindergarten, to allow social distancing. Before the pandemic there were 26 or 27 per classroom. Video cameras were purchased with funding from the Elementary and Secondary School Education Relief (ESSER) Fund, part of the CARES Act. The school already had Activboard wall screens.

“After class one day, the camera remained on and one boy was standing in front of the little camera having a conversation with his friend on the wall screen, just talking to each other,” Pittman said. “I thought that was really great to see — they are still part of the class even if they are not physically here with them.”

SAFETY PROTOCOLS

The school has a long list of safety protocols for in-person students. Anyone who is not feeling well reports symptoms on a phone app every morning “to make sure no one is showing up sick,” Pittman said. Temperatures are taken before they come in the door, and students are grouped in cohorts; they spend most of the day together in their classroom to limit the number of contacts. They get breaks for lunch and recess, the only times they don’t wear masks. Even breaks are supervised to ensure children don’t forget about social distancing.

“They are respectful of each other’s space, and that has helped tremendously,” Pittman said. A full-time nurse is on site every day, and a cleaning crew comes in every evening after everyone has left.

St. Thomas Aquinas Regional School in Woodbridge also follows a hybrid model, with in-person classes five days a week and an option for at-home learning; parents of at-home learners pay full tuition in order to save a seat in the classroom.

“Children are able to return at any point when their family feels it is safe,” said Sister Mary Sheila Maksim, principal of the school, founded in 1977 and staffed by the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia and a lay faculty. In a normal year, the school serves about 500 students; this year, class sizes were capped for social distancing and the student body is just over 400, she said.

“Of these, less than 20 percent are at-home students and this number is shrinking every day, with more and more students returning to school,” she added. “We know that some families are high-risk and have greater need to stay home, so we are doing our best to include them in our school family,” with events such as a pumpkin-carving contest and Zoom costume party Oct. 31 “so that our in-person and at-home learners can all join together to dance to ‘Monster Mash’ and ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ and receive prizes,” she said. At-home learners complete assignments posted online and meet with an online tutor twice a week. They also meet online with their homeroom teacher and classmates briefly once a week, “to maintain a healthy social connection,” she added.

Sister Mary Sheila said she was “pleasantly surprised how well school is going,” yet knows “we could have a case of COVID at any time — and if so, we have good plans for one class or the whole school to go virtual. But at this point, we have not had any cases, and other problems I anticipated have not come to pass.”

For instance, she said, “I thought that children, especially our youngest in PK (pre-kindergarten), would have difficulty wearing masks. We scheduled extra recesses this year for that reason. To my surprise, they seem to have much less difficulty wearing masks than adults do and sometimes even wear their masks at recess,” she said, adding that she is proud of how well students are observing all the health precautions and social distancing. “I am also grateful to families who have been extra careful and quarantined just in case.”

Conducting classes in person “has allowed our students to advance in their studies and to participate in resource and gifted programs in a way that would not be possible if we were meeting online,” she said, and academic gaps from online learning last spring are closing. The school was named a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence by the Department of Education in 2011.

HAPPY TO BE TOGETHER

“The best thing about being back in school is to see how happy the children are to be together. Many of them have voiced this to me, and thanked me for reopening our campus,” Sister Mary Sheila said.

With the extra work of teaching both in-person and at-home students, both principals say the extra load placed on teachers has been intense.

“Although we phased in our student body in order to ease into the year in these stressful circumstances, I underestimated the demands on teachers,” Sister Mary Sheila said. “Our new precautions meant that they had almost no time available for collaboration and planning.” They also have been piloting new learning management software and getting used to working all day in masks, face shields and other personal protective equipment, she added.

After considering multiple schedule changes that would have posed even more new challenges, the school decided to dismiss at noon on Wednesdays to allow teachers time to meet and plan. “This has been a huge relief and allowed us to regain a healthy balance. I am very grateful to our parents for their patience with this change, in support of our teachers.”

Pittman agrees. “Teachers work really hard — without them, this could not be successful.” Between in-class lessons and making sure at-home learners get the attention they need, “it’s really almost like a double job,” she said. Our Lady of Hope was named a National Blue Ribbon school in 2015.

Vorbach said he knows “it is no small lift. The planning and execution of these lessons takes a great deal of thought and time and teachers are doing it every day. The commitment to mission is present everywhere, along with great creativity in finding ways to make things work.” He added that some diocesan schools have “significant waiting lists,” because there are fewer seats available this year due to social distancing requirements.

At Our Lady of Hope, safety measures extend to a new system of managing the carpool line at the end of the day. Every family received a large card with a number to display in a car window; Latin and algebra teacher Shaun Silk, dubbed “the numbers runner,” keeps track of arrivals and departures. Children are released from class only when their ride arrives, preventing clusters of students from gathering outside while waiting in line.  

Jennifer Trono of Leesburg, one of the parents lined up in cars winding through the parking lot on a recent sunny afternoon, said she is happy with all the precautions the school has taken. Her son, Alexander Kowalczyk, a kindergartener, “is so happy to be in school,” she said.

“He loves it every day, and he wakes up excited to go to school. We are very pleased with everything. We made the right choice.”

 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020