The Official Newspaper of the Diocese of Little Rock

School doors will open again in fall with new precautions

More cleaning, social distancing and masks required for in-person classes

Published: July 17, 2020   
Michael Hadley
Trinity Junior High School in Fort Smith photographed students, including Alyssa Gehrig (left), Hailey Hadley and Emma Hunter, all age 15 and ninth grade graduates, May 21 in masks with social distancing to illustrate the ways the school is committing to safety this fall. Catholic schools are planning restrictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

This school year’s biggest experiment has already started, long before the bells ring, assignments have been given or those back-to-school jitters mixed with anticipation arise. Schools are currently planning the best ways to educate students in person in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced schools around the country to switch to virtual learning in March. 

Catholic Schools in Arkansas will return in August, with all providing some in-person instruction along with many allowing virtual options. On July 8, the United States surpassed three million coronavirus cases. 

“I hope and pray it doesn’t happen,” superintendent Theresa Hall said in regard to another school shutdown leading to only Alternative Methods of Instruction (AMI). “I hope and pray someone comes up with a cure or a vaccine, but right now we have to go with what we’re given and take what the good Lord gives us.” 


Diocesan guidelines

Most Catholic Schools in Arkansas will return Aug. 17, with a few that have earlier start dates. Hall said throughout the summer, she’s had several Zoom video meetings with principals, which led to a 17-page Return-to-School Plan from the Catholic Schools Office based on Arkansas Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control guidelines amid the COVID-19 pandemic. However, there are no mandates from the Catholic Schools Office. Guideline implementation is left for the schools to decide though “highly recommended.” Hall pointed out that “this plan could change tomorrow” and already has seen several revisions. 

Top guidelines include wearing a face mask during times of transition — entering and leaving classrooms or the school — but also identifying times where a mask does not have to be worn, including at recess, during class instruction and while eating, if six-feet distance can be maintained. Social distancing by grade levels as well as staggering lunch, recess, library time and limiting the number of children in the bathroom are other recommendations. 

Hall said they’ve also asked volunteers to not come into the schools and there are no field trips. Other ideas are having teachers switch classrooms rather than students moving to different rooms, color-coded floor markers or signs and getting rid of any soft materials, like rugs, that might be harder to disinfect. 

The diocesan office has encouraged each school to form a task force committee to help develop their individual school’s plan, with the help of parents and sometimes students. Hall said on July 2 that most schools still had just drafts of their plans, which are reviewed by her office. 

“There are students that might have some type of health issues, in which we do not want to not include them in our schools, so one way to do that is to offer virtual learning also. There are some that are not,” Hall said. “Part of it depends if they have the materials to continue to do that.” 


Masks and mentoring 

Beyond the normal safety measures of wearing masks and social distancing, principals are offering virtual learning, putting new programs in place for emotional health and creating hybrid options. However, they all agree the plans will be continually changing. Hall said Catholic schools have received CARES Act funding from the federal government, but data has yet to be collected on the total amounts.  

In addition to paycheck protections, schools have used funds to buy PPE, increase cleaning measures, update technology and other ways to educate effectively amid the pandemic. 

“First and foremost, it’s getting the students back in a safe environment,” said Mary Kay Jones, principal at Blessed Sacrament School in Jonesboro.

They have 145 students enrolled, up from 12 last year, making it one of their “biggest years” for enrollment. They will allow parents to opt for AMI for their students. Masks will be “strongly encouraged,” but not mandatory at this point, Jones said, though there will be “mask breaks” if social distancing is achieved. CARES Act funding has helped provide someone who can clean the school throughout the day, Jones said. 

A task force composed of parents, faculty, church office staff and pastor Father Alphonse Gollapalli met in early June. Parent representatives include health care and mental health professionals. Mental health professionals will prepare the faculty during an inservice week to address the “social and emotional responses” of the pandemic. 

“We’ll go through some training on how to answer and address if you have two students who haven’t seen each other since March, and they run up and hug each other, which is a natural human instinct, to respond in a positive way and encouraging way to students,” Jones said. 

“Now more than ever our Catholic faith calls us to take care of one another; that will be a big focus.” 

Dr. Karen Hollenback, principal at Trinity Junior High School in Fort Smith, has asked parents to let them know in July if their student will have in-person instruction or AMI for the school year. A third option will allow them to switch to AMI if they are uncomfortable or if the pandemic gets worse, she said. As of July 8, three families opted for virtual learning only.

On campus, the school will require masks when moving around and distance desks within a classroom. 

“We learned a lot during that last quarter of school if this happens again,” Hollenback said, bettering their technology. “We had teachers that had never been on YouTube and now we have our own YouTube channel.” 

Technology director Jeff Hines led technology training for a week as part of professional development, which included projects for teachers to practice. 

“We are really trying to cut down on paper-pencil tests we use and go online when we are here,” she said. 

Part of its CARES funding, about $6,000, also went to expanding internet bandwidth to ensure high-quality streaming. 

Hollenback said they will also establish mentor groups, which will include about 10 to 12 students, with a teacher at the helm. Two school Masses will be held weekly to split the students and while one group is attending Mass, the others will meet with their mentor groups to discuss how everyone is doing mentally, physically and with their school work. The mentor teacher can also be a point of contact for parents. 

“It’s especially important now to maintain that personal connection,” Hollenback said. 

Catholic High School principal Steve Straessle said the structure of the all-boys school will remain steadfast with five different scenarios: a full in-person school opening with strict health precautions, total AMI and the rest a combination of in-person and virtual. 

“What we think we are going to do is kind of what the state and the nation did. We will start relatively strict with onsite instruction and ease up as circumstances allow,” he said. “What we’ll do is likely go in phases. At the very beginning mandated masks, social distancing not only in the classrooms but also for lunch, arrival, dismissal and as much as we can in changing classes.” 

“I can require our kids to wear a tie, surely I can require them to wear a mask,” he added. 

In a parent survey, 94 percent wanted as much in-person instruction as possible. As of July 8, 40 families opted for AMI learning only out of 720 students. 

With CARES Act funding, those receiving tuition aid will receive a free or reduced cost Chromebook. 


‘God’s grace’

While most schools face similar challenges, St. Theresa School in Little Rock has unique concerns. Principal Kristy Dunn said 85 percent of their 217-student population is Latino, with many immigrants. They will split between in-person and AMI, with half the students coming into the classroom on Mondays and Wednesdays, while the other half is at home with virtual learning and swapped on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Fridays are complete AMI learning. Pre-K will remain at school. Dunn said some classes will be different, including music, as it’s not safe for students to sing for risk of spreading respiratory droplets. 

“It’s really hard. So even the plan I’m telling you is not ideal because we know having that child in our classroom is better five days a week,” Dunn said. “We accept a little more risk” as many families have traveled internationally during the summer, including to Mexico.  

Thanks to CARES Act funding, 70 Chromebooks were purchased for third through eighth grade students, while the younger grades will have a “hybrid” of online learning, along with pencil and paper. Dunn said they will also implement a monthly spiritual enrichment parenting program that will empower parents to be partners with the school in helping form their children in Catholic education.

“The Catechism says the parent is the primary educator of their child. This year, we’re engaging with true partnership like we’ve never done before,” she said. 

Dunn said she’s concerned about teacher safety, particularly those with underlying health conditions, and is still “unnerved” by the uptick in COVID cases. On July 13, there were 28,939 confirmed cases in Arkansas.

Sally Chua, a kindergarten teacher for three years at St. Theresa, said she’s in favor of in-person instruction 

“It’s more engaging. You establish rapport with the kids, learning is more effective,” Chua said, adding she’s not only a teacher, but mother, nurse and counselor to her students. Therefore, she will establish rules on day one. “I’ll explain why you have to be patient and persevere with this. Lots of repetition and reinforcement. Very, very hands on with these new guidelines with the children … It needs a lot of patience, perseverance and prayers. I’m willing to do that for the sake of our safety.” 

“Honestly I’m scared,” Chua said of school returning, adding her cousin in New Jersey died of COVID-19. “But I pray for it; with prayers, God will help you. My dedication to my school and children and to have extra precautions in my classroom and school, I think we will be alright with God’s grace.”

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