"Different doesn't mean bad" - schools open with comprehensive safety plans
FORT WORTH — Beginning a new school year always involves a lot of thought, planning, and preparation. Beginning the school year in the middle of a global pandemic brings many more complicated issues for school officials in the Diocese of Fort Worth to address.
How will schools operate to provide the safest possible environment for students and staff?
What will remote instruction look like for families who choose distance learning?
What happens if someone at school has been diagnosed with or exposed to COVID-19?
These are just a few of the questions educational leaders across the diocese are carefully handling as they opened schools, with most of them starting the week of Aug. 10.
“All of the schools in the diocese have provided two different options, either in-person traditional or virtual remote learning,” said Melissa Kasmeier, assistant superintendent of Catholic schools and interim principal at St. Andrew Catholic School.
The in-person option involves a number of adjustments to make school communities safer. Diocesan educational leaders worked directly with infectious disease experts from Wichita Falls, Cook Children’s Health Care System, and UT Southwestern Medical Center and used guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, the American Association of Pediatrics, the Texas Education Agency, the University Interscholastic League, the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops Education Department, and the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools.
Leah Rios, president of Nolan Catholic High School, said school and diocese officials began working in May with an infectious disease expert who helped them develop a safety plan for holding campus events over the summer, such as strength and conditioning camp, robotics camp, and summer school for students needing extra help.
Following safety protocols, more than 300 people participated in events on campus over the summer. Measures like wearing masks, physical distancing where possible, keeping students in small consistent groups for potential contact tracing, implementing strict sanitizing procedures, and practicing frequent hand washing helped keep students and staff safe.
“It was very successful throughout the summer,” Rios said.
That experience helped officials form the practices they are using as school resumes.
“We’re going based on our own data, moving our same protocols to the rest of our campuses,” she said. “Instead of area statistics and media reports, we had our own data: what our local community was experiencing.”
As they were planning for the new school year, officials had ongoing input from the medical experts.
Kasmeier said, “There is no one on the medical team who has said we should not be back.”
When questions have popped up, officials have gotten rapid feedback from team members, and that practice will continue with school back in session.
Keeping the community safe
Of all the safety measures, Rios believes that “masking is the key.”
All students and staff at Nolan are required to wear masks. Educators are incorporating lessons on how wearing a mask keeps those in the community safer.
“I love my community, so I wear my mask,” Rios said.
They also physically distance where possible, bring their own water bottles, have one-way hallways, stagger passing periods, and adjust lunch practices.
Another key change is implementing an alternating block schedule with four classes that meet every other day to minimize passing periods. A color-coded cohort system for events like school picture day and fire drills helps with contact tracing in the event of COVID-19 exposure.
Students and staff also are taught proper hand washing and sanitizing procedures for desks and frequently used surfaces.
“We’ll get our whole campus involved and keep it fun and engaging and not scary,” Rios said.
At St. Andrew, students in fourth through eighth grades are required to wear masks. Kindergarten through third graders wear masks when they can’t physically distance, Kasmeier said.
Students also are instructed in thorough hand washing techniques, and several hand washing sessions are scheduled during the school day. They also eat lunch in classrooms at first and spend time outside as much as possible. The emphasis is on positive instruction for all ages.
Kasmeier said, “Just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s bad.”
If someone in the school community is diagnosed with COVID-19, each campus has a response team to notify the local health department, families, and staff, while keeping legal confidentiality requirements.
They also will temporarily close off areas used by the infected person for more stringent sanitizing.
Students and staff who have had close contact with a confirmed case of the disease will remain home for 14 days for quarantine.
Distance learning and worship
Kasmeier said the distance learning option may look a little different from campus to campus based on the resources and technology available, but all of them offer the same curriculum and much of the same instruction.
At both St. Andrew and Nolan, about 20 percent of families had chosen remote learning, as of early August. Officials have designed the program so that a student can go from in-person to remote learning if there’s a need for quarantine.
“We want to make it a fluid, seamless transition,” Kasmeier said.
Remote students at St. Andrew have a livestream of the classroom so they can see their teachers, be a part of the class, and ask questions, Kasmeier said. Homework due dates and expectations are the same, but adjustments to some assignments may be required.
At Nolan, students engaged in remote learning are assigned an advocate — a staff member who is not a classroom teacher — who ensures the family receives the resources they need. Advocates have virtual meetings with the family 10 times over the course of the semester, Rios said.
Students are required to wear their uniforms during their remote school day and participate in daily prayers and announcements.
Weekly Mass for students is streamed to classrooms and homes. There also are opportunities for Nolan students to participate in livestreamed Adoration and have their confession heard on campus, Rios said.
Kasmeier said, “We’re excited to see our students, whether it’s in person on campus or through virtual platforms.”