With an eye toward returning to classrooms full time — yet prepared to fall back to online learning if COVID-19 transmission rates rise significantly — officials of the Diocese of Rochester have been finalizing their school-reopening plan for submission to New York state.
The plan was to be filed by a July 31 deadline set by Gov. Andrew Cuomo for plans from all public and private schools. State officials were to decide by Aug. 7 if each plan can be enacted or will require modification.
According to James Tauzel, diocesan schools superintendent, the Rochester Diocese’s plan was compiled by a local task force, based on guidance from state and national educational and health agencies and incorporating individual plans from diocesan Catholic schools. Also factoring into the diocesan plan was feedback from a survey of parents, teachers and staff conducted earlier this summer.
Tauzel said the diocesan plan mirrors its public-school counterparts in such areas as safety protocols for in-school learning as well as preparing for the potential return to online instruction.
But while the demands of social distancing are forcing many public districts to weigh hybrid plans — combining split-schedule, in-school instruction with at-home learning — Tauzel said all 16 diocesan schools plan to offer in-person schooling five days per week based on their building capacities and enrollment projections.
“It’s just not a necessary option for us,” he said of hybrid schedules, adding that there was “strong support for in-person instruction” among the 1,069 respondents to the diocesan survey.
If the Diocese of Rochester’s plan is approved, the only remaining hurdle for a September reopening would be for the two state regions in which diocesan schools are located — Finger Lakes and Southern Tier — to maintain a 14-day average COVID-19 infection rate of less than 5 percent, according to a July 13 announcement by Cuomo. State-provided statistics show that infection rates for the two regions have hovered around 1 percent since mid-June.
To keep their communities safe once the doors reopen, schools are adding several hygiene guidelines, Tauzel said. Among them are mandatory face coverings for students and staff, social distancing, minimal student movement, morning temperature screenings, frequent hand cleaning with soap and sanitizer, and thorough cleaning of buildings.
Tauzel said each school’s principal will be in charge of enforcing the new protocols, adding that school officials also are being trained on how to handle suspected cases of COVID-19. In addition, he said, students and teachers will be implored to stay home on days they are not feeling well.
“Every decision made will prioritize the health and safety of our students, staff and families,” Tauzel said, expressing confidence that the new habits to be incorporated will quickly become “just like tying your shoes.”
The superintendent added that it’s vital for everybody to do their part in order for in-school learning to be continue.
“There’s really no substitute for being in class at school every day. There’s something about the experience that goes into that social and spiritual part,” Tauzel said, noting that live attendance is especially key from a social and emotional standpoint for students in lower grades. He added that the faith-based components of Catholic education, including prayer and attending Mass, are experienced more effectively in group settings.
On the other hand, Tauzel said that provisions also are being made for full-time online learning to accommodate for students and/or family members who have underlying health issues and prefer to minimize their infection risk. He also acknowledged the possibility that a COVID-19 resurgence could send everyone back to exclusively remote learning. According to Cuomo, schools would automatically be closed if the regional infection rate rose above 9 percent using a seven-day average.
Tauzel noted that the diocesan survey contained several questions about respondents’ experiences with online learning this spring and what improvements could be made. The superintendent said he was pleased by how well students and faculty adjusted in the final few months of 2019-20, especially as there was almost no time to prepare for full-time online instruction before the pandemic forced schools to close in mid-March.
“The real heroes there are the teachers,” Tauzel said. “They just gave their all in finding solutions to everything that came up.”
Tauzel said a critical focus for 2020-21 will be blended learning — integrating technology into in-person instruction — so that students become more comfortable with technology tools and resources both in school and at home. Along those lines, he said, diocesan schools are designing a variety of online learning possibilities based on available resources.
For instance, some schools are equipped to offer livestreamed instruction, whereas others “may use web-based apps, Google Classroom and online instructional programs, as well as Zoom, to put together home learning options,” he said. Tauzel added that the diocese is in the process of purchasing i-Ready — an interactive online learning program — for reading and math at all schools.
Facing the unknowns
With only a few weeks remaining until the start of the school year, Tauzel acknowledged that there’s still no concrete picture of how local Catholic education will look this fall.
“It’s really almost going to be a game-time decision at the end of summer,” he said regarding the diocese’s wait on state approval of its reopening plan.
Despite the short time frame left, Tauzel said diocesan schools will be ready to launch the school year come September, noting that they’ve been busy ordering necessary cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment.
“There’s a cost that comes with it, but the safety of the students has to come first,” he said.
Other factors to be sorted out for Catholic schools are coordination of bus transportation with public-school districts, Tauzel added, and finalizing budgetary issues.
“Budgets are tighter than they’ve been in the past,” he said, citing lost fundraising opportunities and the ability to conduct open houses during the pandemic.
Even with tighter budgets, the superintendent said he hopes all diocesan schools will continue to be able to provide staffing for such enrichment classes as art and music. “To continue that kind of work is really important. Catholic education believes in developing the whole child,” he said.
Enrollment across the diocese has thus far met anticipated levels for this time of year, Tauzel said, adding that in-person learning five days per week has emerged as a selling point for families who don’t favor the hybrid model at public schools. Even so, he said a handful of diocesan schools — All Saints Academy, Corning; St. Mary Our Mother School, Horseheads; St. Ambrose Academy, Rochester; and St. Agnes School, Avon — have recently conducted or are in the midst of special fundraising and enrollment drives.
Despite the many challenges and uncertainties facing diocesan schools, Tauzel said he remains eager and optimistic about “being able to be together again and seeing our communities in action,” noting the faith-filled, family atmosphere that makes Catholic education so unique.
“If this spring has taught us anything, maybe it’s that we’re stronger than we think,” he remarked. “I think our faith carried us through the spring. I hope we enter a new school year reinvigorated with the faith that has carried us.”