By Tony DeGol
Debbie Bartley is stocked up on hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes.
As the Director of Religious Education at Saint Mary Parish in Altoona, both are must-have items in all of her classrooms this year.
As parishes prepare to welcome students for a new academic year of Religious Education this coming weekend, Saint Mary is among the parishes opting for in-person classes. Not surprisingly, health and safety are the priorities.
Each student will have his or her temperature checked before entering, Bartley insisted.
“We have large enough spaces that we can social distance,” she emphasized. “Students will have to wear masks, but we can practice social distancing and do it safely, and frankly, when we had to shut down in March, we just missed the kids. I hope they are as excited to come back as we are to have them.”
In-person Religious Education is always the most desired path, according to Francine Swope, diocesan coordinator of Religious Education and Youth Ministry.
“It’s really that one-on-one connection, that sharing and seeing each other,” admitted Swope. “We realize it isn’t for everybody, but for those that can do it, we’re happy they are able to do so.”
All parishes offering in-person classes are following Centers for Disease Control and Pennsylvania Department of Health guidelines, and all parishes were required to submit safety plans to the diocese.
For parishes that do not have the physical space for in-person learning, or have other concerns, virtual opportunities are among the other options.
Educators can use Zoom, Google Classroom, or other platforms that will allow teachers to connect each week with students, Swope explained.
Some parishes, like the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Altoona, are using an online program.
Teachers will send lesson plans to students each week, and the students will have until the following week to complete each lesson, explained Cathedral DRE Chris Laraia. In other words, students can work on their own time each week.
“Then they can sleep in, and the kids love not having to get up at 8:00 a.m. on Sunday mornings in the winter,” she joked.
At Holy Family Parish in Portage, parents will serve as Religious Education teachers.
Families are receiving books, journals, and Bibles and parents will have a schedule to follow on their own weekly timetable. Each students’ completed work will be turned into the parish.
“We have the teachers reaching out to parents once or twice a week – whatever parents need,” stressed Holy Family DRE Melissa Lee.
No matter the option a parish is choosing, all catechists seem to be embracing another opportunity to give each young person an encounter with Jesus.
“We’re excited to have the students back,” Bartley said. “Let’s have a great year and pray that God allows us to get through it without any disruptions.”
Editor’s Note: For more on the various options parishes are choosing for their 2020-2021 Religious Education programs, watch a special edition of Proclaim! TV on September 13 at 10:30 a.m. on WATM ABC 23.
[Photo: A bulletin board with a special message greets Religious Education students at Saint Thomas Aquinas Parish in Ashville, one of several parishes opting for in-person classes.]