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Catholic school reveal plan to reopen for Fall

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People have been wondering if “Back to School” in 2020 means going back or even going to school. Due to COVID-19 the state of public and private schools has been in question since last March when a pandemic forced students to stay home and learn via digital platforms such as Zoom and Google Classroom.

All New York school districts have had to design a reopening plan for the fall. On Aug. 7, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he will allow all New York state schools to open.

Michael LaFever, Ed.D., superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese of Buffalo, outlined the plan for the reopening of parish and regional elementary schools. As of mid-August, the plan calls for the majority of Catholic elementary schools in the diocese to be open five days a week with in-person instruction. Although most schools will have full days, as they had last fall, the schools will look and conduct education differently once the students step inside. Desks will be spread apart to avoid the possible spread of the coronavirus. Lunches may be held in classrooms instead of cafeterias. Gym classes may be held outside.

“Most of our schools, because they’re smaller, are able to do the social distancing that’s going to be required,” said LaFever.

Each student will have their temperature taken as they enter the school. Parents are asked to keep their kids at home if they appear to have any signs of a fever or other illness. Students will wear masks when social distancing is not possible.

St. John Vianney School in Orchard Park is just one school that has brought in an outside company to block off desks with plexiglass. Each desk at the pre-K through eighth-grade school will have two plexiglass walls, placed in front and on the left side of each desk. The right side is open so the student is not caged in. For lefties, the glass will be on their right side. Dividers will be placed on the pre-K tables. The school is also capping classes to just 16 students per room.

In addition, the school provides smaller things, like lanyards with facemasks on them. There will be seven new hand-sanitizing stations. The water fountains have been converted into bottle filling stations.

“We spent a lot of money, well worth it to keep our kids safe,” said Principal Kristine Hider.

The school has already had every room cleaned and every floor buffed in anticipation of the students return. Sprays will be used every night after class. Even the jungle gym will be wiped down after each group of kids uses it during recess.

Desks were distanced and marked by the parents themselves for their children. The amount of materials that stay in the classroom and go home with the teachers will change.

“The rooms are looking really good. I had five or six teachers in her today, and they’re really embracing all of this. It’s wonderful. They’re thinking outside the box. It’s great. They’re all working together, as we usually do anyway,” said Hider.

Transportation should not be a problem. Public schools are required to provide transportation five days a week to Catholic schools as long as they are providing in-person or remote instruction to their students, regardless of the schedule the public schools choose for themselves.

“If they have a staggered schedule or have odd-even days, or even if they do it all online, they’re still obligated to provide us with bus transportation,” LaFever explained. “Now, how the public schools are going to do social distancing on buses, that’s a big unknown.”

Catholic schools do have several substitute strategies in case of another stay at home order.

“If we need to go online, we have alternate plans,” LaFever said. “Our schools can do odd-even days and staggered schedules, hybrid models – bringing in the elementary children Monday, Wednesday, Friday; the intermediate children Tuesday, Thursday. Those are all back up plans for us.”

If a student is found to have COVID, as with any illness, the student would be placed in an isolation room and cared for by specially garbed nurses. Parents will be called, the child will be sent home and quarantined for 14 days. The Department of Health would be notified so contact tracing could be done. Every person that child had come into contact with would be notified.

“It wouldn’t mean shutting down the school because one child has COVID or even two or three,” explained LaFever.If there is an outbreak, it may mean a 14-day quarantine for a school. “We’re prepared for that. We know what we have to do. We’re in a much better position this year now that teachers have gone through the online instruction,” he added.

If they return to online distance learning, it will be a structured schedule more in line with a typical school day, to help the family work around the schedule. LaFever does have concern about kindergarteners being in front of a computer for three hours at a time. He suggests the teachers give them a project to do that would allow them time away from the screen, such as following up nutrition lessons by helping the parents prepare lunch or a healthy snack.

Principals have spoken with senior staff members who may have health conditions that could be compromised by COVID to see if they are fearful about coming back. LaFever heard that St. Benedict’s lost several teachers who decided to retire rather than face the possibility of illness.

“Ironically, we may lose Catholic school teachers to public schools because they’ll be opening. The same thing is happening in public schools. Senior teachers have decided to retire rather than come back,” he said.

Looking back at last year’s surprise turn of events, LaFever is proud of the way Catholic schools responded.

“We lost hardly (any students) in the entire diocese,” he said. “We, honestly, got rave reviews from parents through the entire diocese about how hard our teachers work. I told the principals as soon as I realized that we would have to close, ‘You’ve got to communicate every day, contact each other, contact parents, be working with them, this is going to be critical for the success of our children and our schools.’”

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