By Tony DeGol
As the long-time principal of Saint Peter School in Somerset, Jill Harris is no stranger to getting ready for a new school year.
This year, however, she admits the process is like walking on shifting sands.
“Almost every day brings new guidelines and information from federal, state, and local authorities to be included in our reopening plans,” Harris noted. “While abiding by these guidelines, and with guidance from our diocesan leadership, we also wanted to keep in the forefront of our minds the worries, concerns, and views of each family, which can widely vary.”
When the doors at Saint Peter swing open in a few days, Harris and her faculty and staff will be ready to safely greet the students in person for the first time since March 13.
The same is true for the other 12 Catholic elementary schools and four independent Catholic high schools in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.
Leading and accompanying the schools through this challenging COVID-19 era are Diocesan Director of Education Jo-Ann Semko and Executive Program Assistant Peggy Beck.
They tasked all school campuses in Altoona-Johnstown to establish their own plan for returning students to the classroom while following all public health guidelines to the letter.
According to Semko, this brought many more voices to the table versus establishing one diocesan plan for all of the schools.
“We had more doctors involved, more nurses involved, more parents involved,” she explained. “If we would have done a diocesan plan, we would have probably had a dozen people. Now, we have well over 100 to 150 people who have been involved in making sure we have a safe return to school. It just made more sense.”
“Having voices from our school community participate in this process through surveys and an advisory committee helped us develop a plan that best suited our school community,” she said.
Each school’s plan is available on its website. Of course some requirements are universal, including students, teachers, and others wearing masks at certain places in each building.
Physical distancing is a given, Semko added.
“That’s where we’re at an advantage,” she noted. “We have older buildings with large classrooms, so we’re able to do the six feet distancing in almost every single classroom.”
Recess and Physical Education will be outside as much as possible.
“When it comes to lunch, different schools have different ideas,” Beck said.
Some students may be instructed to bring lunches and eat in their classroom; some schools will offer the usual cafeteria service with shifted lunch times to limit the number of students in the room.
Surely everyone wants to know how a school will respond if a student comes down with the virus or exhibits symptoms.
“It’s on a case-by-case basis,” Semko explained. “If they’re actually in our building, we’ll remove them from the student body and call parents immediately and have them taken from the school.”
A series of steps will follow, such as deciding whether to quarantine a classroom or other area or shut down the entire building for deep cleaning.
“Depending on the circumstances, we have a guide that will lead us through the decision making process, and that’s coming from the CDC, so we will follow their guidelines for whatever circumstance we end up in,” Semko continued.
And if students need to return to virtual learning at any point during the year, the schools are ready with a new learning management system called Schoology. The system takes the technology the schools used in the spring and puts it in one place with one password.
“It makes it much easier, and parents should have no trouble following it,” Semko stressed.
So despite the unprecedented circumstances, the anticipation for this new school year is contagious.
“We are excited for our crisp notebooks and fresh pencils, to meet new teachers and old friends,” Beck commented. “We are also praying for a complete face-to-face, safe and healthy, happy year for our students, families, faculty, staff and administrators. Whatever the circumstances, our schools will make the 2020-2021 school year a wonderful educational experience.”
Teacher Alexa Kline of Holy Name School in Ebensburg is ready to roll.
“I know this year is going to present some unique challenges, but I know that we will be able to meet all of those challenges, because we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us,” she reminded. “I cannot wait to be back in the classroom in person. I’ve missed everyone so much over the past few months, and I know we’re going to have a great school year.
As for Harris, she is not letting those shifting sands distract her from what is truly important.
“As we begin these final preparations, we are trying to focus on the things we all have in common, which is love and concern for our families and our love for our Catholic school,” she remarked. “I have seen this love in real and tangible ways throughout this ordeal. The moments of grace in our school – and across all the schools in our diocese I’m sure – are reminders of why all of us are part of Catholic education. So we will all just step forward as we have since March 13th and pray for just enough grace for each new day, no matter what it brings.”
[Photos: (Top) Teachers at Our Lady of Victory School in State College sport masks as they prepare for the new school year. (Inset) The OLV library has been converted into a middle school classroom to better accommodate physical distancing for the students.]