As students, parents and teachers across the Diocese of Saginaw gear up for a back-to-school season like no other, Catholic Schools Superintendent Cormac Lynn (pictured above) wants everyone to know his number one priority.
“Our first goal is to make sure we can safely educate our students and create a safe working environment for our staff and faculty,” he said.
To achieve this, Cormac gathered a task force of 45 faculty, parents and healthcare providers, representing the diocese’s 12 Catholic schools.
Tackling the big questions
The Back to School Task Force composed a COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plan, which considers guidance from the state and local health departments.
“Our efforts to create a safe environment for in-person instruction significantly exceeds the requirements in the (state’s) Return to School roadmap. The task force did a great job thinking about what would be best for our staff and for our students,” Cormac said.
Philip Serier, a member of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, Saginaw, brought his perspective from the planning and execution of safely bringing back the workforce at Nexteer Automotive.
“The efforts that Nexteer put forth helped guide me a little bit, and I was able to provide some of that experience to the task force. I think it was a pretty good discussion-starter,” he said.
Philip was involved in discussions about controlling school entries, screening questionnaires, masking, see-through barrier usage and social distancing in classrooms.
“The task force in general took it very seriously and made very good recommendations,” he said.
Each school then developed an individualized preparedness plan addressing the recommendations, explained Lisa Seely, principal of St. Mary Catholic School in Alma and task force member. For example, St. Mary is adding hand sanitizer stations and mental health screenings.
Providing education and safety
“We feel there’s a strong preference among our community and our parents for face-to-face instruction, and predominantly five days a week of full-day instruction,” Cormac said.
Though the task force explored the possibility of a diocesan-wide online learning program, there was not significant interest. However, that may change as conditions shift.
“If there is a desire for online education or an alternative learning environment, (families) should talk to their building leaders, and we will explore every reasonable option to support our Catholic school families,” he said.
One important factor in Catholic schools’ preparedness is their smaller size compared to public schools, enabling them to provide appropriate social distancing.
“Just like everything else, it will be different than it was before,” Cormac summarized.
For elementary students, each classroom will be its own “cohort” and not interact with other classes, including at recess and lunch. Staff and middle and high school students must wear facial coverings, and younger students must mask in common areas. There are also strict cleaning guidelines, including staff wiping down desks between classes.
While daily health screenings are not required by the state, many schools are implementing them. All buildings are limiting nonessential visitors and keeping strict records if the need for contact tracing arises. Each school will make its own decisions about after-school activities, like athletics, while in accordance with the Michigan High School Athletic Association, but keep child care.
In addition to classroom instruction, Catholic schools will continue to provide unique spiritual development.
“There is a strong desire on the part of the bishop to provide a live Mass opportunity for our students,” he said, adding that details of how to celebrate school liturgies are still being finalized.
Prepared for virtual learning
Schools can only resume in-person instruction in phases four and later, as determined by the MI Safe Start Plan. If a region returns to phase three, schools will switch to online learning.
“We’re working to leverage our collective experience across our 12 schools and roughly 200 instructional staff so that we can all learn together and share best practices,” Cormac said. “We’ve learned a lot from the experience this past spring.”
Each school will choose one online learning platform and establish clear expectations for both students and teachers.
St. Mary in Alma is incorporating Google Classroom from day one, hopefully making the possible transition easier.
“Teaching online is hard,” Lisa said. “I said, ‘we have to be prepared to do this. We have to be prepared for when a student, or two or three, or a whole classroom stays home.’”
The diocese also hosted a professional development day in August to equip teachers with the best practices for online instruction, and there will be learning opportunities throughout the school year for teachers and parents alike.
Challenges, positivity and trusting God
Cormac said he’s grateful for the CARES Act funding available to the diocesan schools, but it doesn’t cover the added expenses.
“One of the biggest challenges of all of this is no one has budgeted for these increased requirements,” Cormac said. “For one of our K through 12 systems, just the cost of hand sanitizer alone for the year is projected to be $10,000.”
For Lisa, the experiences of the past spring have reaffirmed the importance of patience, open-mindedness and trusting in God— a foundation of any Catholic school.
“We don’t know why this is happening, but we’re trusting everything is going to work out,” she said, adding that teachers have been invaluable. “Their dedication, support and loyalty to the school, families and kids is going to be what gets us through.”
Philip says he’s supportive of his daughter returning to seventh grade at Nouvel Catholic Central Elementary School. Returning to work at Nexteer has given him confidence that schools can successfully reopen, too.
“With proper safeguards in place ... I think it can be managed and the risk can be reduced quite a bit,” he said.
Though Cormac and the task force know that keeping up with the latest research and data will require flexibility, they are optimistic about the school year.
“I was grateful we had such a strong show of support with the task force. … I’m proud of all the work our staffs have done over the summer,” he said. “We want to get our kids back in school. We know that community is such a part of their experience and our staff’s experience and as long as we can do so safely, we want to do that.”
“I’m excited. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen these kids. … We all miss them,” Lisa said. “Through the summer, I’ve sent several communications (to parents) and asked them to remain positive. … This is what we have to do.”