Back to school plans take shape as COVID-19 data, recommendations shift daily

Back to school plans take shape as COVID-19 data, recommendations shift daily

As students return to classes this fall, the coronavirus has undoubtedly changed what that experience will look like, making this annual reunion one of unprecedented transformation.

But one constant remains, according to outgoing diocesan Catholic school superintendent JoAnn Tier – the determination of Catholic schools in the Diocese to move forward both safely and ardently.

“Working with so many unknowns, it’s amazing how resilient our administrators are,” Tier said. “They are people of faith. They get the job done; they put their whole self into it, as well as their staff … I’m continually impressed with their dedication and commitment.”

What Back to School is Looking Like

The reopening of schools after a several-months shutdown requires planning of extreme magnitude, with an ever-changing kaleidoscope of state and national data – including viral transmission rates, children’s susceptibility and consequences for mental health – from the Centers for Disease Control, the American Academy of Pediatrics, government health experts and more. Administrators have had to weigh each point of information carefully to assure children will safely receive the superb academic and faith-based education parents have come to expect from Catholic schools.

Diocesan staff spoke with school administrators and principals throughout the summer to discuss guidelines for getting schools ready for the upcoming academic year. Often adjusted based on New Jersey’s updated health recommendations, these guidelines have been implemented by schools based on each entity’s unique needs and capacity to meet those criteria with available resources.

Parents, too, were provided with surveys over the summer to offer feedback on the options for the year ahead. Survey responses were taken into account alongside best practices for health and safety.

“Catholic schools in the Diocese of Trenton will follow the guidance of both the state education and health departments,” said Dr. Mark DeMareo, principal of Holy Cross Academy, Rumson. “Because that guidance changes regularly, the Catholic schools document is not cast in stone. It’s fluid; it’s changing as the situation evolves and as we learn more about COVID-19.”

As of The Monitor’s press date, DeMareo plans to open HCA for students in kindergarten through eighth grade on Sept. 1 and 2 with half days, then move to full-day instruction. Preschool four-day and five-day programs will start Sept. 14.

“Our goal has been to return to normal operations to the fullest extent permitted by research-based health and safety guidelines,” he noted. “As the COVID-19 situation and guidance continues to change, our plans will also continue to change.”

HCA intends to accommodate 15 students per classroom to maintain social distancing – comfortably achieved in the rooms’ oversized layout. An additional teacher will be hired to help split the 24-student fourth grade into two classrooms of 12 students each. Upper school students will also be split similarly, and teachers will be encouraged to utilize the library and conference rooms as needed. 

“For some class changes, teachers, rather than students, will move from room to room,” DeMareo explained. “Morning and afternoon prayers are presented over the intercom rather than during a morning gathering, while Mass may be attended by smaller groups and streamed schoolwide.”

St. Mary School, Middletown, has been working on its reopening plan with the help of a reopening committee, composed of a pediatrician, school business manager, director of technology, school and parish administration, facilities coordinator, director of security, school guidance counselor and school nurse.

“It is our aim to make the return to school as enjoyable as possible, all while ensuring that the environment … is as safe as possible, and is above the [state] standards,” school staff said.

Safety Measures

Looking to utilize in-person, in-classroom instruction as much as possible, schools’ safety measures include temperature checks, enhanced cleaning and sanitization procedures, restrictive visitor policies and hand-washing measures. 

“We are coming back full time and staying full time as long as we can,” said Jason Briggs, principal of St. Gregory the Great Academy, Hamilton Square. “We are leveraging outdoor and extra space in September as much we can. As it gets colder that may no longer be possible – but we’re not going to overlook a viable option for fall because it doesn’t work in December.”

In Trenton Catholic Academy, Hamilton, school begins Sept. 9 for all pre-K through 12th-grade students, utilizing face masks and maintaining safe distancing in both classrooms and larger shared spaces, such as the gymnasium and cafeteria.

“Daily health assessments will be necessary in order to maintain a healthy learning environment for everyone,” said TCA president Michael Knowles.

Lunchtime protocols will also look very different from prior years. “Students in the Lower School will eat lunches in their classrooms. The students in the Upper School will eat in the cafeteria or in the gymnasium if needed, and will follow social distancing guidelines,” Knowles explained. School lunches will be offered, he said, in a “grab and go” manner. Students may also bring lunches from home for individual consumption.

“As 60 percent of our students receive free or reduced lunch, it is our intention to continue to provide breakfast and lunch through NutriServe Food Management,” he noted.

Donovan Catholic High School and St. Joseph School, Toms River, which share a campus, have the advantage of ample space to spread students across larger rooms. The cafeteria, said Dr. Edward Gere, principal, will accommodate students for six lunch periods.

“They’re going to have a real lunch experience, albeit six feet apart. But it’s sitting at tables,” he explained. “Even that simple act is powerful. It’s going to give them more opportunities to interact together.”

The outdoor space includes a quadrangle that has been available for lunch in non-pandemic years. “We’ll use it even more for outdoor lunch now, and teachers can use it from time to time for class periods,” Dr. Gere continued. 

St. Leo the Great School, Lincroft, will adopt many of the same safety and distancing measures. 

“It is our intent to make the return to school as complete and enjoyable as possible, all while ensuring that the environment for our students and staff is at or above the standards outlined in Gov. Murphy’s guidance,” said Mary Koury, director of admissions and marketing. 

Focusing particularly on the sanitization aspect, St. Leo the Great campus renovations over the summer have included student bathrooms, which have been updated to include no-touch faucets, toilets, hand dryers and paper towel dispensers. Touchless hand sanitizer dispensers will be installed in each classroom, and the school is the process of designing and installing student desk top safety and security shields to further help accommodate social distancing.

“We have had the school and air ducts completely cleaned through an electrostatic disinfecting and sanitizing process; all sanitizing measures have been carried out by certified contractors,” Koury delineated.  

In addition, a Needlepoint Bipolar Ionization System is being installed, which filters the entire HVAC system, continually cleaning circulating air and eradicating bacteria, viruses and mold.

To further reduce viral introduction, Koury said, “students will use the Sani-Stride shoe wash system, which is used in industrial and medical settings to assure the disinfection of shoes coming into the building.”

St. Gregory the Great Academy is also looking to airflow measures as well as on-desk polyethylene guards.

“In order to promote better ventilation, we are retrofitting classroom windows for through-window vent fans,” said Briggs. “We’re also ordering desk guards for the lower grades. The reality is that you can get fifth-graders and up to wear masks [consistently], but younger kids are going to fiddle with the mask and move it. If they’re working at their desk and have a desk guard, it’s not as big a deal if they slide the mask aside.”

St. Mary School has also renovated bathrooms with all no-touch amenities, added hand sanitizer dispensers throughout the school, and will limit student movement and contact.

“We have an arrangement with Flynn O’Hara to incorporate SMS inspired face mask/gaiters for student use – easy to pull up when needed,” the school assured parents. “All students will be wearing face coverings when social distancing is not possible.”

In West Long Branch, administrators and parents at St. Jerome School have been instrumental in assuring best practices for following health guidelines.

“We are fortunate to have parents who are clinicians and physicians at Hackensack Meridian Health, guiding our efforts and helping us to establish protocols,” said Filippini Sister Elizabeth Dalessio, principal. “They are graciously giving their time and expertise to develop policies, including guidance around masking, temperature checks, sanitizing and lunchtime protocols … measures include keeping children in their classrooms, requiring all persons entering building to wear masks and have temperature taken. Children will eat in classrooms and we will schedule as much outside time as possible for P.E. and recess.” 

Virtual Readiness

Because complete home instruction was required a short few months ago, Catholic schools around the Diocese have moved with energy to adjust to the virtual classroom.

Recognizing the possibility that shelter-in-place restrictions may again be indicated by the state if cases balloon, teachers have spent extra time familiarizing themselves with the various online platforms that played such a critical role in the continuation of the 2019-2020 academic year. Various scenarios have been planned, with some schools offering a hybrid week of instruction divided between school classrooms and at-home virtual access, and preparing for total online instruction should the need arise or a family situation require it.

Donovan Catholic High School, in coordination with St. Joseph School, is working on ironing out the options alphabetically by last name to keep families on the same schedule cross-campus.

“Option one is a hybrid model, with partial at-home and partial in-classroom instruction; another option is to be home virtually 100 percent of the time,” explained Dr. Gere. “When we surveyed parents initially, about 30 percent said they were interested in virtual instruction.”

Anticipating that need, Donovan Catholic has elected to set up cameras in each classroom for real-time education – with an adjustment in teaching structure.

“Things will be a bit different in terms of lesson plans,” Dr. Gere said. “You might see review at the beginning of class followed by seat work, and maybe that’s when the teacher uses Google Meets or speaks with students individually at home and those present [in turn], so there’s some real-time interaction… It does offer them a little bit richer experience than just the Zoom format. But we’re preparing to do that too if needed.”

Trenton Catholic Academy will offer full-time online learning as a choice for families through Google Classroom, as well as a separate and full online option for grades six through 12 through the online learning platform Catholic Virtual. 

Speaking to the experience of spring 2020, Knowles said, “While COVID-19 may have closed our physical school building, our administration, staff and coaches were busy making sure our students had all the tools they needed to succeed.” That included the use of social media for leading school community daily prayer and virtual celebrations like the May Crowning and helping families secure wifi access.

Briggs said that St. Gregory the Great Academy’s virtual instruction solution will be “simple but effective. Teachers will use a Chromebook with the camera focused on the board, and virtual students can sign in to view class.”

Chromebooks have been assigned to grades five through eight for years, Briggs continued. “Third and fourth grade will have Chromebooks that will remain at school unless we go to full remote instruction.” Devices for younger grades will be on loan from the school on an as-needed basis. 

St. Jerome School  has been at the forefront of tech updating since the pandemic began.

“With the support of the entire St. Jerome community, we have been able to outfit each classroom with a camera and large screen television to allow students to attend school in person or virtually,” Sister Elizabeth said. “We have also created a one-to-one device program, which will enable us to hold class in real time and, using Microsoft teams, interact with each other as if we are all in the classroom.”

Transportation issues

For most school districts, busing has not yet been decided for public school students, which has left nonpublic schools awaiting word on availability. Contributing to the challenge of finding busing companies willing to take Catholic school student routes – with already fewer students in a wider-spread area – are the distancing protocols required by the pandemic.

“A school bus accommodates 40 kids,” which must be reduced by half to keep children spaced apart, Tier pointed out. “If there are only 20 kids now scheduled on the route, there need to be multiple routes. Masks are a possible solution, but it depends on what each district is deciding; they are still figuring it out.”

As in non-COVID-19 years, state aid in lieu of transportation will go to families on behalf of each student who is unable to be accommodated with a bus seat, in accordance with the money allocated for nonpublic school transportation in Gov. Murphy’s budget, which is due in September.

Monmouth and Ocean educational services sent a letter to school principals in Toms River, said Tier, indicating bus assignments “could be a rocky experience, and not to count on transportation … only 20 routes out of 300 have been bid on by bus companies. We think this could be a domino effect across the state.” Bidding on busing routes continued through July.

TCA has learned that busing will be available from Hamilton, but will need to look to courtesy busing – wherein parents pool resources to pay for a private bus – that has supplemented busing for students in Trenton, Ewing and Burlington in prior years. 

Transportation is still an evolving situation for Donovan Catholic as well. “We still have not received a definitive answer from the district,” said Dr. Gere. “It’s in transition. We do have some of our own buses, and those will continue – but it doesn’t cover all students. Having buses is expensive, and bus drivers are hard to come by.”

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