By Tony DeGol
It is a discussion that is gripping the nation: Will students return to in-person classes in the fall?
The answer is a resounding “yes” for Catholic schools in Altoona-Johnstown, and the leader of Catholic education in the diocese is assuring that the return will be done safely.
With 13 Catholic elementary schools and four independent Catholic high schools throughout the eight-county region, there is no one-size-fits-all plan, cautioned Director of Education Jo-Ann Semko.
“Since our diocese and our schools land in different zones for the state, we decided to have plans on a school-by-school basis, and in some cases a building-by-building basis because some of our schools have more than one building,” she noted. “Our plans will be fluid, also.”
Earlier this summer, each school location was tasked with studying the situation and coming up with a plan for the 2020-2021 academic year. All plans were reviewed by and approved by Semko.
Each school site brought together a team of stakeholders to develop the plan including physicians, nurses, and other healthcare workers as well as parents, teachers, and administrators.
“We’ve taken a real broad approach in every school where we have input from all different sectors of the school,” Semko insisted. “The plans were put together with what’s best for our students. How can we keep them safe and how can we keep our teachers safe?”
All of the plans are similar in that they all following CDC and state guidelines, Semko stated.
Differences in the plans stem from the public school district in which location falls.
The collaboration with school districts is largely linked to Catholic schools’ reliance on the district for transportation, Semko said.
“At this point, all of our schools are going back somewhere between mid-August and the beginning of September,” she added.
Since most school buildings in the diocese are older, they tend to feature larger classrooms and other spaces. This makes it easier to implement social distancing guidelines, which offers further reassurance.
“We feel very, very confident that we’re okay going back with our full student body coming back and going five days a week for everybody,” Semko said.
Additionally, teachers are in the midst of training for Schoology, a learning management system that will make it easier for students and parents to readjust to virtual learning, if schools need to halt in-person classes down the road.
“If that happens, we are more than ready to go,” stressed Semko. “We should be able to handle whatever comes our way.”
The return plans for each school location are posted on each school’s website and are available for review through the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown website — click on “Diocesan School Health and Safety Plans” under the Education Office.
Although much preparation has already happened, further preparation will continue in the days ahead with one goal in mind.
“We consider these kids our kids,” Semko said. “Whatever we are doing, we would do the same for our own children. We love them very much, and we’re definitely going to do everything we can to make sure that they are safe, we are safe, and anyone who comes in our buildings are safe.”