Diocesan schools open year with in-person learning

Teachers at St. Edward-Epiphany Catholic School, Richmond, have prepared their classrooms for socially distanced in-person instruction. Diocesan Catholic schools will reopen the week of Aug. 24. (Photo/Stephen Previtera)

Measures implemented to protect students, teachers

Although she didn’t need to be reminded how quickly her first year as the superintendent of Diocese of Richmond’s 23 Catholic schools had changed, Kelly Lazzara saw evidence of it when she walked through the hallways of a school in June.

“There were things for Presidents Day still on the wall. St. Patrick’s Day decorations were still around because, literally, they went home on a Friday (March 13) thinking they’d be back Monday — and they didn’t return,” she said of the shutdown due to COVID-19. “So, it was interesting walking around a school in June and seeing those decorations because it literally had to change that quickly.”

When classes resumed, it was a new chapter in Catholic education.

“Monday (March 16) had already been scheduled as a professional development day, so we had that, and then the majority of the schools started back virtually March 17 with new instruction,” she said.

Lazzara credited teachers for maintaining a high standard of learning.

“Our teachers did do a phenomenal job. They did not miss a beat,” she said. “We had one day of professional development and started virtual instruction with new material and continued to grade our students and assess our students and to finish the school year successfully.”

Lazzara said teachers “did not want to let their students down.”

“They gave 150%. There were teachers that I know that were working until midnight every single night to adjust to this new style of learning so quickly,” she said.

Taking precautions

While some school districts will continue to teach students virtually, when diocesan schools opened Aug. 24, students were physically present in their classrooms.

“For the most part, we are so different than the public school system. Our size is really what is allowing us to be able to do this,” she said. “We’ve been able to look at our classrooms and say, ‘How can we adjust? How can we maintain a 6-foot distance or even down to a 3-foot distance with wearing masks and still really provide them with an in-person instruction?’”

St. Edward-Epiphany School, Richmond, (pictured) and all diocesan schools have implemented safety precautions for students, faculty and staff returning to in-person instruction the week of Aug. 24. (Photo/Stephen Previtera)

Lazzara noted that all of the principals have been instructed to pay particular attention to how classroom space is utilized.

“So if they’re able to maintain a 6-foot distance, they will do it. And in many cases, they will be able to do it,” she said. “Some of the classrooms might be 5 feet, 4 feet, as low as 3 feet, but we’re maximizing that distance in order to maintain the safest environment possible.”

To help ensure the safety of those in the schools, the Office of Catholic Schools issued a policy regarding masks on Thursday, Aug. 13:

“Masks are required for all faculty, staff, students and visitors at all times when inside school buildings and when outdoors and unable to maintain a 6-feet distance. Supervising teachers may permit students to remove their masks for limited periods of time, when appropriate physical distancing, students being at least 6 feet apart, is in place.

“Developmentally appropriate and medical accommodations can be made as needed and approved by the school principal.”

Just in case

As schools are opening with in-person instruction, Lazzara said she is constantly monitoring what is happening with COVID to see if at any point during the year Catholic schools will have to adjust what they are doing.

“While we know they did a great job (in teaching virtually), we are also helping to prepare our teachers not only for the virtual environment, but also to have their students coming back after being in a virtual environment for a quarter and how to properly assess that,” she said.

To assist with that, teachers had access to 15 professional development webinars during the summer.

Lazzara noted that teachers often talk about the “summer slide” — what students don’t retain over the summer — but this year they’ll be looking at what students might not have grasped during the virtual fourth quarter.

“We want to really assess them in order to be able to clearly meet their needs with what they’re coming back for and where to pick up where we left off,” she said.

Lazzara said the “one consistent message” she’s been hearing from school personnel is: “Everyone wants to do what is best for everyone.”

“It’s a struggle because we do truly want what is best for all of the students, but we also want what’s best for our family and our faculty members, the parents and the community at large,” she said. “They want to provide the best academic environment for their students and to provide them the best education. That’s what a teacher wants more than anything is to educate their students to the best of their ability.”

New context for ‘waiting list’

As of mid-July, overall enrollment in the diocese’s schools was down 8% from where it was a year ago, according to Lazzara. Some, she noted, were as much as 7% ahead of where they were last year, and some were behind by 25%. However, over the last few weeks that might have changed.

“Our phones have been ringing off the hook with parents that are inquiring about enrolling their children because, as the public schools have rolled out some of their plans for all virtual instruction, there are a lot more people out there looking for the option of in-person instruction,” she said.

However, principals need to be careful not to overenroll their classes.

“One of the reasons we were able to (social distance) is because of our size, so all the principals have been instructed that they need to know what the maximum capacity of their classrooms is for maintaining the appropriate distances and are not to enroll students more than they can handle,” Lazzara said, adding that’s why several schools have waiting lists.

“It’s not that they’re full, but that they have reached the capacity that they can maintain at the distances we need to require,” she said.

A different look

Lazzara said teachers and students might have concerns as they return.

“Teachers are walking into a lot of uncertainty again and wanting to make sure that their students are comfortable, are safe, remain healthy and can be educated,” she said. “There may be some fears for students coming back into the environment after being out for so long, and it’s going to look very different.

Lazzara said students will need to be taught about wearing masks, washing their hands and social distancing — things that were not part of the Catholic school curriculum.

St. Edward-Epiphany School, Richmond, has installed an Infrared Temperature Measurement Unit to monitor temperatures prior to anyone entering the school building. (Photo/Stephen Previtera)

“Our schools are about building community and relationships and working collaboratively and closely, and all of that will need to be adjusted in order to maintain their safety,” she said. “So, they will be having to kind of recreate the wheel once again in the fact that they need to be teaching in a far different way than they would normally in the non-COVID world.”

Lazzara said this will have an impact on the youngest students.

“Normally we’re teaching our little ones to share, and now it’s kind of teaching the wrong lesson: ‘You can’t share your pencil with someone else. You can’t share your crayons’ or ‘You can’t share that toy,’” she said. “‘Everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten’ about sharing and caring for others is kind of put on hold for now.”

As for what she hopes to say at the conclusion of the academic year, Lazzara said, “I would like to be able to say on June 5, 2021, that we successfully completed this academic school year in providing our students with an exceptional, faith-based, Catholic education in the safest environment possible for them as well as for our faculty and staff.”

Editor’s note: Updates the reopening of Catholic schools are available at https://richmonddiocese.org/reopening-our-schools/.

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