All 37 of the Jefferson City diocese’s Catholic elementary schools and three Catholic high schools remain on target for ringing in the 2020-21 school year with in-school instruction.
But with a proven track record for distance learning and months of preparation, they’re ready for whatever obstacles may come.
“We are doing everything in our power to prepare for as many different scenarios as we can,” Dr. Erin Vader, diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools wrote to Catholic school parents.
“But it is hard to guess how our school communities will look as we move through this pandemic.”
She pointed out that:
“Our Catholic schools are here to support and serve your families,” Dr. Vader wrote to parents. “We are here to support you as the first and best teachers of your children. We are here to walk with you through this time.
“With God’s help, we will continue to grow and learn as a community of Catholic Christians, serving one another as disciples of Jesus Christ.”
The work of disciples
Debbie Reinkemeyer, principal of Holy Family School in Freeburg and Sacred Heart School in Rich Fountain, is confident that this will be a successful learning year for all of her students, even though some things will be different.
“I know it will work because I’ve already seen the level of commitment of our teachers this spring,” she said. “They really showed their dedication and passion for their craft. I know they will do whatever it takes for their kids to be successful.”
During this spring’s abrupt transition to distance learning, school staff, families and the larger community focused their efforts on the wellbeing of the children.
Teachers provided students and parents paper work packets and online communication and instruction, depending on which worked better for each child.
“We were in communication with parents at least once a week regarding the instruction and the assignments,” Mrs. Reinkemeyer noted.
Many teachers made instruction videos or presented live instruction over Google Meeting software.
Parents gave steady feedback, and the schools made adjustments along the way.
One of the lessons was the need for standardization and continuity. This year, parents will receive all online communication from teachers in the same format.
“They won’t have to sort through different platforms,” said Mrs. Reinkemeyer. “It will all be the same, whether their children are in second or fifth or eighth grade.”
Students in grades 3 through 8 will begin using Google Classroom to hand in assignments from their first day in the classroom forward
They will be able to continue using it from home if the need arises.
To help reduce the spread of COVID-19, Holy Family and Sacred Heart schools will join the other schools in following standard protocols for social distancing.
Separate spigots for filling personal water bottles have been added to the drinking fountains. Touchless hand-sanitizer dispensers have been installed.
Classrooms will be cleaned daily with disinfectant.
Teachers will wear facemasks whenever working in close proximity to students.
Official notice of an increased threat of communal transmission would trigger smaller class sizes or the staggering of classes in the schools.
In such a situation, older students would wear facemasks throughout the day.
All students will wear facemasks whenever working in small groups.
Mrs. Reinkemeyer said God’s presence in these unsettling times has been revealed through the compassion and patience people have shown for one another.
“That is the work of disciples — to be of service,” she said.
She has received plenty of helpful information from the diocesan Catholic School Office as well as the local health department.
“Having those close relationships and getting the latest information about how to keep our students safe and use the best instructional practices has been invaluable,” she said.
Sacred Heart School in Sedalia, the diocese’s only kindergarten through grade 12 Catholic school, had astounding, measurable success with distance learning in the spring.
“With one day’s warning, our entire school changed from a traditional model to an online school,” said Liz Suter-Van Leer, the school’s development director.
The school logged a 98.8 percent student attendance rate from the time remote learning began on March 18 through the end of the school year.
Students in grades 6-12 averaged 20 hours per week of faculty instruction, with approximately five hours per week for grades kindergarten through 5.
The teachers hosted an average of 360 online Zoom sessions each week.
Fine arts classes continued through distance learning.
Most core courses ended the year on schedule from a curriculum standpoint.
All of the seniors graduated and have enrolled for the fall at a college or university. Six of the 21 members of the Class of 2020 have committed to playing sports at the collegiate level.
Mrs. Suter-Van Leer pointed out that 19 percent of the student body is classified as a minority. About one-third of the school’s families qualify for free or reduced lunch, and 90 percent of the families have applied for tuition assistance for the upcoming year.
“Keep in mind that we are a Catholic school for all,” she said. “And just like our ornery and endearing Gremlin mascot — inspired by the WWII gremlins — you just can’t bring us down.”
“Part of our mission”
Spencer Allen, principal of St. Joseph Cathedral School in Jefferson City, emphasized something all Catholic schools have in common.
“While keeping our kids healthy and safe is a top priority, this also includes their spiritual and emotional wellbeing,” he said.
At the Cathedral School, that includes beefed-up trauma-response, student-support and efforts to promote the spiritual health of the students, some of whom have not been to Mass in several months due to the pandemic.
“We want to make sure they’re healthy in their spiritual development and relationship with God while attending to their physical health and safety,” said Mr. Allen.
He pointed to the sacrifice teachers will be making this year.
“I don’t think most people realize the daunting task the schools have to keep our teaching professionals safe,” he said.
“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve rightly been focusing on the people who are on the front lines: first-responders and healthcare professionals,” he said.
“The teachers will now be stepping into the front lines with them,” he said. “They’re doing it for the sake of the kids, and we need to recognize and be grateful for the courage they are showing.”
“It’s a selfless type of leadership,” he said. “We need to be ready to support them and help them.”
“And we continue to pray for them and pray for the kids and keep asking God, Who brings good out of all things, to help us recognize any good that comes out of this,” he said. “That is part of our mission.”
The power of prudence
Dr. Vader reiterated that it’s important for people to tune out the loudest, angriest and most fearful voices during the pandemic and walk the line between paralyzing fear and dangerous ambivalence.
“If we allow irrational fear to dictate what we do, it will draw us away from what it means to be true Christians,” she stated. “God gave us our minds to reason rightly, and if we allow irrational fear to take over, we’re not trusting God and we’re not trusting ourselves.”
At the same time, it’s essential for every educator, student and family member to take the pandemic seriously.
“We need to stay well informed and continue following the advice of the medical professionals who know better than we how to respond to this pandemic,” she said.
“We need to do what we can to protect ourselves and our families and protect our hospital and medical professionals from being overwhelmed, and balance all of that with living our lives.”