Diocesan schools make in-person learning work

This sixth-grade social studies class at Charlottesville Catholic School, with students and teacher masked and desks at least six feet apart, was typical of in-class instruction during the fall semester at diocesan Catholic schools. In-class instruction is continuing this semester. (Photo/Frank Murphy)

Principals, teachers credited with providing quality education in safe environments


On Aug. 24, 2020, all 23 of the Diocese of Richmond’s Catholic schools began the 2020-2021 school year with in-person learning.

As the semester closed before Christmas, those involved in keeping the diocese’s 6,837 students safe, healthy, happy, engaged, academically on target, and nurtured in a faith-filled environment were heartened by the diocese’s success – no one more than Kelly Lazzara, superintendent of the diocese’s Catholic schools.

“Students are doing well. They are happy to be in school. They are engaged in active learning. They are excelling,” she said.

To open the doors of their schools and to keep them open, administrators, faculty and staff, students and families joined together in meeting an array of challenges.

Pulled out of their comfort zones, they faced days filled with a host of difficult tasks that included monitoring and managing exposures, finding new ways to provide lunch, rotating Mass attendance, incessantly cleaning and disinfecting, keeping some form of tradition alive, taking temperatures, and engaging in new forms of teaching and learning.

It wasn’t easy, but because everyone worked so hard – with hyperawareness and hypervigilance – they managed to keep COVID-19 at bay and stay in school. Preparations began in the summer with physically preparing schools for children in accordance with their mitigation health plans.

“Numbers have been relatively low,” Lazzara said. “I don’t anticipate a change for next semester because mitigation plans have been working well.”

‘Lot of success’

Cases of students and employees having to quarantine mostly involved close contact with individuals outside of school.

“The semester was the best you could hope for,” said Louis Goldberg, principal at St. Matthew Catholic School, Virginia Beach.

He reported that when his school of 469 students and 75 staff had been in session for 13 weeks, 0.7% of the school population had tested positive for COVID-19, and the number of close contacts was at 1.1%. There were no cases of student-to-student transmission and no cases of staff testing positive.

“We’ve had a lot of success,” said Billie Schneider, principal of St. Anne Catholic School, Bristol. “We’ve had few direct and indirect exposures, which mostly involved quarantining out of caution.”

At Christ the King Catholic School, Norfolk, principal Kim Callahan commandeered a herculean effort before and during the semester to keep her school clean and disinfected. She is especially proud of her investment in equipment to do this.

“Kids have been good,” said Callahan. “Little ones are very compliant with masks,” adding, “it’s an effort with 2-year-olds. Teachers are always dealing with masks.”

Teachers have done yeoman’s work in familiar territory since March, not the least of which has been providing synchronous learning to allow them and students in the classroom and at home to interact in real time.

Ready to go virtual, if needed

Even with in-person learning, all diocesan schools have some form of virtual capability they use on an as-needed basis that may or may not include synchronous learning.

“I can’t stress how much work it takes to pull this off,” said Charlottesville Catholic School principal Michael Riley of the school’s synchronous component. “Doing both in-person and on-screen learning is a challenge. We need to thank teachers when we see them. They are really working hard.”

“For teachers and administrators, this has been one of the hardest years they’ve had in education, but they also feel blessed to have provided in-person instruction,” Lazzara said, adding that she is confident that diocesan schools are prepared to revert to virtual learning if the need arises.

She noted that technology upgrades and schools investing in “a significant amount of equipment” will help with meeting student needs if virtual learning becomes necessary.

All schools are acutely aware of the importance of preparing for what’s to come.

For several years, Peninsula Catholic High School, Newport News, has used Distance Learning Days to help students and teachers practice virtual learning. This year, parents were required to select either an in-person or virtual option for the first semester. The school had both in-person and virtual students five days a week.

Principal Janine Franklin is even more committed to a well-functioning virtual program since experiencing the abrupt change to online learning last March.

“It taught us a lot of lessons, so we invested in new platforms,” she said.

Enrollments fluctuate

Many diocesan Catholic schools experienced enrollment fluctuations as a result of COVID-19 because parents sought in-person learning or better virtual learning for their children, which may not have been available at public schools.

St. Matthew Catholic School gained a lot of new families but lost students, ending up with a 12% decrease in enrollment.

“Ninety-five percent of those who opted not to come back weren’t feeling comfortable with in-person learning,” said Goldberg.

Charlottesville Catholic School lost 52 students but gained 63, with the majority of losses COVID-related.

“Of the new people, those who came were mostly those who wanted the in-person learning,” Riley said.

Blessed Sacrament-Huguenot School, Powhatan, experienced a 20% increase in enrollment, adding 156 new students.

According to Lazzara, there are a number of diocesan schools at capacity and a number of schools that have room for additional students as long as they adhere to guidelines for classroom capacity so they don’t over-enroll.

Quality education, safe environment

The diocesan Office of Catholic Schools provided principals and teachers with professional development opportunities so they could receive any needed support associated with their school’s new normal.

Principals strengthened bonds with colleagues in their respective regions and around the diocese, which enabled them to exchange ideas, find new approaches and solutions, and feel supported.

“We may be far removed geographically, but we are not far from the support,” said Schneider, whose school is in the southwest region of the diocese.

Lazzara is in close contact with principals and feels well connected to them. She wants them to know “they are not alone.” She also regularly confers with other Catholic school superintendents in surrounding areas.

“Making sure we continue to provide quality education in a safe environment for faculty, staff and students is my biggest challenge as well as my biggest success,” said Lazzara.

In addition to supporting one another, principals also kept parents updated with communication and transparency, and parents regularly showed their appreciation and gratitude.

“We’re all doing the best we can,” said Goldberg. “We’ve proven what we did worked. We didn’t know that it would.”

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