What Catholic Elementary Schools Will Look Like in September

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For Catholic elementary schools in the archdiocese, all systems point go for September, with a call to proceed with caution through the adherence to coronavirus protocols.

Immaculate Conception School on East Gun Hill Road in the Bronx is serving as a model school that has been retrofitted for safety and distancing protocols necessitated by Covid-19.

CNY toured the school July 22, guided by the principal, Amy Rodriguez, who serves as a member of the archdiocesan Catholic Schools Reopening Advisory Council. The advisory council reports to Michael J. Deegan, superintendent of schools for the archdiocese.

The children’s feet will follow a well organized grid of arrows and social distance stickers throughout the school. At one intersection of ascending and descending stairs near a doorway, a sign instructs the young pedestrians to Stop, Look, Wait. Lockers for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders have been removed to ease the pedestrian traffic inside the school.

In addition to directional and social distance stickers on the floors are numerous signs, at age-appropriate heights, aligning the walls that repeat the reminder to students to social distance and of the importance of wearing face coverings.

Water fountains, now covered with caution tape, have been taken out of service. Hand dryers in restrooms are also out of commission, necessitating the use of contactless paper towel dispensers. Hand sanitizers are visible throughout the school.

Before students set foot inside the school, they will line up, single file, along a socially distanced marked fence outside the school and then, in turn, enter the building. Tape marks the spots where two students at a time are permitted in the vestibule before arriving at the temperature station in the lobby.

Principals from other schools have been touring the retrofitted Immaculate Conception School by appointment since July 6. Ms. Rodriguez appreciates being part of the Advisory Council in that providing input from a principal’s perspective—“what will work in a school and what might not”—was practical.

Then, to see the plan come to fruition at the school and welcome other principals to tour it for the benefit of their schools “has been wonderful,” she said. “It’s really important to have that visual. We can say, place social distance stickers down but to actually see where it should go” provides clarity. “You can tell someone, put desks six feet apart, but what does that really truly look like?”

At Immaculate Conception, a typical classroom will have 16 desks, in four rows of four, six feet apart. Students will no longer be summoned to chalkboards or white boards to diagram a sentence or solve a math problem before their peers.

Students who attend classes remotely from home via their Chromebooks will be able to see in real time their teacher teaching the class that includes their on-campus classmates.

Johanna Ellerbe, pre-k director at Immaculate Conception School, outlined changes in the setup of a pre-k classroom the day of the CNY tour.

The number of youngsters allowed in the classroom will be reduced, as will the number permitted into that classroom’s sectioned off learning centers for subjects such as science, math and dramatic play. Children receive a personal bin of playthings and related school supplies. All the pre-k classrooms are now outfitted with sinks with potable water for children to individually wash their hands throughout the day, which will limit traffic outside the classroom en route to restrooms.

“We are still super-excited to welcome all the pre-k children,” Ms. Ellerbe said. “We are still excited about their learning. We want them to continue learning five days a week—whether we are in-person or a combination of in-person and at-home learning.

“We want the parents to know that we are taking precautions but we are also aware that they are 4 years old. Children will be valued for the age and stage that they’re in. We’ll still have an opportunity to explore even though it seems a lot more structured than what it was before.

“At the end of the day,” Ms. Ellerbe added, “we don’t need to make it perfect, we just need to make it work for the children, and keep them safe.”

Ms. Rodriguez said that as principal she is candid when speaking with families. “Every decision that we’ve made during this unchartered time and unprecedented time, we’re keeping the health and safety of our students at the forefront of our minds, and the health and safety of our staff,” she said. “I’m hoping that gives the peace of mind that parents might need.”

Since in-class learning was halted in Catholic elementary schools across the archdiocese in mid-March, the halls have gone quiet. Ms. Rodriguez looks forward to the day she can welcome students back to class. “We really miss our kids. My favorite part of every day is when the students are coming through the doors and I can say, ‘Good Morning’ and welcome them, and they’re equally excited to be here. Even though things look a little different, I don’t expect the feeling of welcomeness to change.”

To build upon all that is already in place, she has a promising goal in mind: “My eye on the prize is getting students back in school for September safely, soundly and healthy.”

For all the modifications that have to be made to contend with the novel coronavirus, an integral message taught to Catholic school students remains the same, Ms. Rodriguez concluded. “During the best of times and the worst of times, we always need to hold on to hope and each other—as a Church, as a community, as one. Learning through Covid is keeping our community as a Church united. We’re in it together, no matter what—not just through Covid, but forever.”

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