• Aquinas Institute

    Aquinas Institute (Courier file photo)

Catholic high schools in Rochester Diocese plan for reopening

Jennifer Burke/Catholic Courier    |    08.03.2020
Category: Back to School


“How do we continue to do our mission when the world around us has changed?”

This question, voiced by Aquinas Institute’s principal, Theodore Mancini, is one the leaders of all local Catholic high schools have been working to answer as they develop reopening plans for the fall.

“There is no script on this. We’re all doing this for the first time,” added William Geraci, principal of Bishop Kearney High School in Irondequoit.

Schools throughout New York state were directed to begin creating these reopening plans by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Plans were to be submitted to the state’s education and health departments by July 31, and Cuomo has said state officials will make a decision on how schools will be permitted to reopen by Aug. 7.

On July 16, the state education department released a 145-page document detailing the actions schools must take in order to reopen, and the department released a similar document July 27 with reopening guidance specifically for religious and independent schools. The guidelines in the documents detail the actions schools should take in a number of key areas, ranging from instruction and transportation to nutrition and the social-emotional well being of students and staff.

Much of the state’s lengthy document essentially could be boiled down to the importance of, and ways to implement, social distancing, masking, hand sanitizer, hand washing, contact tracing and quarantine, Geraci said.

“Every facet of the school had to be looked at through the lens of those indicators,” he remarked.

Putting together a plan that meets all the state’s criteria has been a monumental undertaking, according to Martin Kilbridge, principal of Our Lady of Mercy School for Young Women in Brighton.

“The entire experience of the school has to be re-examined and redesigned, so it’s been a tremendous effort,” Kilbridge said.

Mercy’s leadership team put together a task force comprising doctors and other experts in relevant fields, and its members have been leading subcommittees — addressing finance, facilities, health and safety, instructional program, social-emotional wellness, and culture and climate — responsible for putting together the various pieces of the school’s reopening plan, Kilbridge said.

Aquinas has taken a similar tack, ensuring its reopening committee includes representatives from all of the school’s stakeholders, including parents, teachers, doctors, lawyers, school administrators and board members, Mancini said. The committee regularly sought input from teachers, students and parents, first via a virtual town-hall-style meeting and later through surveys, he said.

The reopening team at Tyburn Academy of Mary Immaculate in Auburn created one plan for the entire student body to be present on campus on each school day, another plan for full-time distance learning and a third plan that is a hybrid of the other two. Tyburn’s relatively small classes and spacious classrooms and hallways make it possible for the school to reopen for on-campus learning in September if the state approves, said Maura DelFavero, Tyburn’s principal.

The state guidelines dictate that when calculating how many students a classroom can safely hold, school leaders should allow for 20 square feet per person. Using this formula, Tyburn’s large classrooms would safely accommodate the school’s already-small class sizes, she said, whereas some other schools simply don’t have the space necessary to accommodate their large student populations.

“Our enrollment is going up slightly, and I imagine we’ll see even more of an uptick because of our (small) size. Families know we have a better chance of running a day that has more normalcy because of our size,” she said.

If on-campus instruction does resume in September, returning students will notice some differences. Every classroom, office and bathroom will have a wall-mounted hand-sanitizing station, and students would be directed to move through the hallways following a specific traffic pattern, DelFavero said. One staircase has been designated for use by those going up and another by those going down.

Students would be assigned to cohorts, or small groups. The school grounds also are spacious, so students could choose to eat lunch outdoors, which might provide a boost to their emotional health, she said. And when the school community celebrates Mass together each week as it always has, only one group of students, rotating weekly, would be seated inside the school’s chapel while the others watched livestreams of the Mass from their classrooms, DelFavero said.

One of the plans considered by Our Lady of Mercy also utilizes a cohort system, within a hybrid learning plan. Under this system some Mercy students would be assigned to the Faith cohort, which would be on campus on Mondays and Tuesdays and engage in distance learning on Thursdays and Fridays, Kilbridge said. Students in the Hope cohort would be on campus on Thursdays and Fridays, and learning remotely on Mondays and Tuesdays. Girls who are learning remotely will be “experiencing livestreaming, synchronous instruction,” and will be able to see and interact with their peers in the classroom, Kilbridge said.

Synchronous instruction will be made possible through the use of cameras and smartboards in the classrooms and devices distributed to the students — Microsoft Surface Pro laptops for Mercy’s high-schoolers and Chromebooks for the middle-school students. This plan also would allow for a smooth transition to all-remote learning if the need arises during the school year, Kilbridge said.

Aquinas’ reopening plans also utilize cameras in the classroom in order to facilitate distance learning if necessary, or if families decide they’re not comfortable physically sending their children to school, Mancini said. Aquinas also created a plan to accommodate the entire student body on campus five days a week by finding creative ways to utilize its space. School leaders have determined how many students each classroom can accommodate while still maintaining social-distancing requirements. If the number of students in a particular class exceeds that classroom’s maximum occupancy while maintaining social-distancing requirements, students would take turns once a week attending the class remotely from one of several designated large spaces on campus, such as the gymnasium, Mancini said.

“They’re still in the building, but one day out of a week they would be in another location virtually attending that class. Four days a week they are face-to-face with their teacher,” he said.

Like Aquinas,

Bishop Kearney also is planning for a return to on-campus instruction five days a week . The school was built to accommodate more than 1,000 students, but since current enrollment is just under 400, adequate social distancing is possible in the building, Geraci said.

Reopening for on-campus instruction does not come without a price, however. The measures schools must undertake in order to open safely — from the need for extra cleaning down to floor decals directing traffic flow — all come at a cost, Geraci noted. Local religious schools may get a share of state funding directed toward local educational agencies, but it likely won’t be enough to cover all the costs, he said.

On the positive side, crafting and implementing reopening plans forced school leaders to become problem solvers and critical thinkers, and has highlighted the importance of transparency and communication, Mancini said. When families first started asking him what school might look like in the fall, it felt strange to say he didn’t know, he recalled.

“I’ve come to this new realization that it is not only OK to say, ‘I don’t know,’ but it can also help families and parents understand that we’re all in this together,” he said.

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