At Christ the King Church in Little Rock, a little girl walked into the sanctuary, taking a moment to inhale the scent of incense. Principal Kathy House watched as the student, walking into a school Mass, said it felt “so good to be back in church.”
“This is why we needed to open because these kids need Jesus,” House said.
With guidelines from the diocese’s schools office and each school following their own strict protocols, students returned to their campuses to begin fall instruction for 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. While teachers have adjusted to moving classroom to classroom and keeping students within their designated cohorts, creativity and practicality come together for electives, lunches, recess and the pillar of Catholic education, school Masses.
So how does school look different during a pandemic?
House said instead of one, all-school Mass for the 515 students -- 59 are virtual only -- there are three throughout the week. Every third week, students from their grade level can attend in-person Mass. For example, while first grade students attend Mass in the sanctuary, the second and third grade students watch it streamed into their classroom and Communion is brought to them. While in the past anyone in the parish could attend the school Mass during the week, the priests now can tailor the homilies to the grade level. House said associate pastor Father Taryn Whittington asked the children about their favorite food to help explain “manna in the desert.”
“They really have to step up and learn the Mass parts and participate and it’s a real intimate experience with the Mass. It’s been very, very cool,” House said.
Pastor Father Erik Pohlmeier also stopped at each part of the Mass to explain what would be happening next for younger students, House said. For some of those who had just made their first Communion in the spring, school starting was just the second time they had received Communion.
Students are no longer allowed to check out library books at Christ the King School because each time a book is checked out, it would have to sit on a shelf for three days after being sanitized, House said, with most students normally checking out two to three books a week. However, books have been ordered for certain classes for each student as well as classes keeping books in their classroom.
For afternoon pickup at Christ the King School, students wait in their classrooms and a smart whiteboard alerts what cars are waiting on certain students.
“When the bell rings, I don’t have 500 kids outside,” House said. “It’s a system we’ll probably keep forever.”
With 442 students on site, St. Joseph School in Conway spaced out in the elementary and middle/high school cafeterias, with just one student at the end of a roughly six-foot table and a seating chart, discussed with the food service director, said interim principal Matt Tucker, who is also the middle school principal.
Preschool students eat in their classrooms. The elementary school has four lunch periods separated by grade level, the middle school has one lunch separated by grade level and two lunch periods for high school students, also separated by grade level. After each lunch, the tables and any high-touch areas are disinfected. Plexiglas was installed in the hot lunch line and students must wear their masks walking in and out or if they get up for any reason. Students are asked to wash hands and sanitize before entering and upon leaving the cafeteria. If a new seating chart has to be created, the previous charts are dated and kept.
“If there was a student or even a faculty member who had duty, if they were to test positive that allows us as a school to better contract-trace the student’s locations,” Tucker said. “It’s an extra layer of work, but it really is an extra layer of protection so we do not have to shut down the whole school.”
Recesses at St. Joseph School are split up and the playground is divided by grade levels, with students wearing masks unless they can keep 6 feet apart, Tucker said. Students can interact at recess with students not in their classroom.
“We do recognize grade-level pods. We’re trying to minimize cross-contamination as much as possible but still looking at that social piece. … in talking to most students that's what they missed most about school, their friends,” Tucker said, but added, “I’m amazed at how well the students are accepting, embracing what we’re asking them to do to keep everyone safe … it’s been a blessing for us.”
As students file into the St. Theresa School gym in Little Rock, P.E. teacher Melanie Warg is about to have her students for 30 minutes. Because of the hybrid teaching schedule -- with students having onsite instruction half the week and the other half virtual -- she sees half a class one day a week, down from every class for 45 minutes two days a week. With six classes a day, there’s about 14 students in each.
“It’s been really difficult with the little bitty kids and pre-K students. I usually had a real hands-on approach with them,” Warg said.
Now each student has their own ball and cannot share, and activities are less communal.
“It’s much more structured activities, line drills, cones. Skill work with them,” Warg said. The students still wear masks during physical activities but are allowed to go to designated bleacher spots to take “mask breaks” without having to ask Warg for permission, “because they’re running and having a hard time breathing with the masks on,” she said.
Once the weather cools, she plans on taking the children outside where they will not have to wear masks if they can keep physical distance.
It takes about 30 minutes for Warg to sterilize all the equipment. While there’s currently no physical education live-streaming or videos for the 4 percent of students opting for virtual only learning, the Marathon Kids, an activity and running-based program free to schools this year, can track their activity if they choose to participate with the pedometers, she said. It will also be offered to first-sixth grade students. A $5,000 Heart Association grant from last year was also used to obtain more playground equipment for distancing, including soccer goals and a volleyball net.
The first question Carrie Elam’s art students typically throw at her is “When are we going to paint?”
Last year, Blessed Sacrament School in Jonesboro had a designated art room, with little regard to messing up the space. Due to the pandemic, Elam, who works part time for the school, takes her “art cart” to each classroom to teach the 119 students learning onsite and seven virtual.
“Art is a very messy, creative process; to have that now be thrown into their classrooms where the students day-long academic environment takes place has been not challenging, just different,” she said, teaching each student to respect their art space as also their desk space. So when a crayon box flies, it’s a teaching moment, one to prep them to soon start working with paint, she said. Besides pre-K, classes are 30 minutes, which now has to include cleanup time.
The students no longer share art supplies but have their own supplies that were included on their class list at the beginning of the year.
“I have to make sure I'm tailoring the art lessons to the individual art mediums that each class has,” Elam said. For virtual students, art lessons for the week are given to them and Elam provides visual tools and links to complete the same assignments.
But art is also serving as therapy. Self-portraits were created with masks, a way to normalize it. A licensed professional counselor, Elam speaks with each class about 20 minutes once a week to facilitate different activities focused on emotional and social behaviors.
“We talk a lot about feelings. ‘Well, what are some ways if you’re at school if you feel feelings that make your stomach hurt or heart hurt? What are some tools in your toolbox you can use?” to help, she said. They also watch for physical signs of stress, if personalities change and emphasize how to be empathetic to each other.
“What are ways we can still be kind and caring and show that Christ-centered approach?” Elam said.
It’s usually not hard to find the music room in a school, with faint student voices echoing in the hallway. This year, it’s silent.
“Singing and wind instrument playing is really kind of the biggest danger of all with spreading the virus. It has definitely affected my class a lot,” said Kristi Brackett, music teacher for the 360 K-eighth grade students at St. Vincent de Paul School in Rogers, 25 of whom are virtual.
Brackett’s class is using Paul Hall, the former church, for space while her usual room has become an extra kindergarten classroom.
“We are not allowed to sing so we are trying to incorporate more instruments, a lot of rhythm stuff, body percussion,” like stomping, snapping and clapping for the K-fifth grade students, she said. Brackett is also using an online curriculum through Google classroom that can benefit virtual students who cannot participate in in-person activities, with interactive games and homemade instruments.
Those onsite cannot swap instruments without their being sanitized and unused for a week, Brackett said. For the sixth-eighth graders, they still listen to the church hymns as prayers. She has focused more on drama this semester, which allows for social distancing. Two students -- instead of the typical 45-person choir -- still sing at the school Mass while wearing masks.
Band students sit spaced outdoors, with coverings on the wind instruments and slits in their masks to play. It’s not ideal, but Brackett knows it’s minimizing the risk, as she was ending a 14-day quarantine after a close relative tested positive for COVID-19.
“I said to a student today that my biggest thing is I can't wait until next year when we can sing to Jesus in our loudest voice and praise him,” Brackett said. “Not being able to do that is very difficult on your heart.”
Please read our Comments Policy before posting.Article comments powered by Disqus