Schools face challenges of Covid in the classroom
With the recent increase in positive cases of Covid-19 placing many Western New York counties into the Orange Zone, Catholic schools in those areas will need to revert to the distance learning method of instruction implemented last spring with the pandemic first hit the area. Schools will be allowed to reopen if everyone in the school is tested for the Coronavirus, and only those who test negative are allowed to return.
In the precautionary Yellow Zone, only 20 percent of students, teachers and staff need to be tested once a week. If the positivity rate is less than the Yellow Zone rate of positivity, the school can maintain in-person instruction.
The New York State Department of Health will provide rapid testing kits for the Coronavirus to local health departments, hospitals, pharmacies and other health care providers. There is no cost for testing at New York state test sites, however there is a lengthy and costly process to get a license for a testing site.
“Our goal is to have all our students in school for face-to-face, in-person learning, because that it what works best,” said Joan Thomas, interim superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese of Buffalo.
St. Amelia School in Tonawanda made the switch to remote instruction earlier this month after students and staff members tested positive for Covid-19. Principal Scott Kapperman explained that staffing issues made the decision a necessity. The school had planned to return to in-person learning on Nov. 30.
“Currently, we have nine out of our 566 onsite individuals that tested positive, which only is a 1.8 percent positivity rate, which is well below the average here in the county or the town,” he said on Wednesday. “The issue was, the quarantining requirements for 14 days caused staffing issues for us, because some of the affected individuals were staff members or family of staff members, so they had to stay home. That made it very difficult to find coverage for those teachers at this point.”
A delay in bringing contact tracers into the school was also a factor.
“We were concerned about the potential of having asymptomatic positive cases in our building because it takes three to five days for contact tracers to get a hold of administration in the building. You could potentially have cases spreading in your building because you’re not even aware that you have positive asymptomatic students. I didn’t feel comfortable with that,” he explained.
The school has revised its distance learning method based on a survey with parents, students and teachers last spring. One of the biggest changes was increasing the amount of face-to-face time between teachers and students via the Google platform. The teachers are in contact with the students daily, and have set office hours so parents and students can ask questions or get more assistance. The lessons are now recorded, so that students can rewatch and review the material.
The school also has a counselor and a social worker on staff to provide support for families that are struggling with social and emotional issues as a result of the pandemic or the distance-learning plan, and also to reach out to students who are not regularly attending the Google Classroom sessions to make sure they do not fall behind academically.
St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute in Kenmore just reopened after a brief transition to distance learning due to an influx of symptomatic students into the nurse’s office from Nov. 2-4 as explained by school president, Christopher Fulco. Of 30 people tested, 11 were positive, including two staff members. The time off allowed for a deep clean of the building. It also gave students time to get tested and positive students to clear the virus.
Closing the school doors was “really just to get everyone out of the building and sort of reset, so that we could get back into the building this week with healthy, Covid free students and faculty,” said Fulco.
The school has found it easy to flip back and forth between in-person teaching and distance learning due to some professional development that took place last spring to make sure the distance learning was “best in class.”
The distance learning class schedule has been tweaked from the standard day. Instead of the usual nine 37-minute periods, the schedule reduced the number of classes (now six classes with lunch break), then extended those classes to 54 minutes. Each class has a mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning. Studies have shown that a combination of instruction and individual study is the most effective way for students to learn. The extended period allows for that mix of instruction.
“The reviews that we got back from students and parents were largely positive. They really felt our system this fall was more effective than our system in the spring,” Fulco said.
Thirty-five St. Joe’s students have self-selected to learn remotely for a variety of reasons, including the comfort level of parents, immune issues, and parental health issues. Teachers have been teaching in person and remotely all year. The school has one-to-one laptops and cameras in each room.
“It was a very quick pivot from in-person to distance, and then a quick pivot from distance back to in person,” Fulco said.
In the case of a student or staff member testing positive for Covid-19, principals have been instructed to contact the State Health Department. Parents are to be notified and informed of measures being implemented. Anyone testing positive or who was in contact with the infected person will be quarantined for 14 days. Their siblings, however, will not be required to remain home unless they are displaying Covid-19 symptoms. Distance learning will be provided to the students affected.
Notre Dame Academy third-grade teacher Allison Reinin starts the first day of remote learning after Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared Erie County a COVID-19 Orange Zone. Courtesy of Notre Dame Academy.