• <p>Steve Oberst, retired principal of St. Pius Tenth School in Chili, oversaw task forces at diocesan schools that were in charge of developing school reopening plans. (File photo)  </p>

    Steve Oberst, retired principal of St. Pius Tenth School in Chili, oversaw task forces at diocesan schools that were in charge of developing school reopening plans. (File photo)

Rochester Diocese school faculty, families ready for in-person learning

Ketsia Rodríguez/Catholic Courier    |    08.03.2020
Category: Back to School


A return to in-classroom education this fall was the preference of a majority of Catholic-school families and faculty in the Diocese of Rochester, as indicated by responses received from a diocesan survey distributed earlier in the summer.

James Tauzel, superintendent of Catholic schools, said survey respondents also indicated they wanted more information on how in-person learning would take place.

To that end, Tauzel said that the principal at each of the 16 diocesan schools was instructed to convene a task force that would develop a school reopening plan with guidance from the diocese. Each team comprises faculty members, community members, health officials and parent volunteers.

“Since each school is so unique and so different based on the demographics, community, facilities and resources that they have on hand, each building will be handling reopening a little bit differently,” Tauzel said.

He added that site-based decisions would be best handled by teams at each of the schools, but that required precautions such as social distancing and face coverings, and an emphasis on safety would be the standard for all schools.

Steve Oberst, who retired in 2016 as principal of St. Pius Tenth School in Chili, is overseeing the various school task forces on behalf of the diocese and has been working with principals on creating the reopening plan for each school.

Oberst said the schools’ reopening plans incorporate guidelines outlined in the Recovering, Rebuilding and Renewing: The Spirit of New York’s Schools, which was developed by the New York State Education Department to provide guidance for in-person instruction in prekindergarten through grade 12.

Following the guidance offered by the NYSED, the diocese assisted the schools in developing their reopening plans by devising and distributing to the schools a customizable plan template containing the safety actions required by the state. In addition to reopening plans, the state is requiring schools to submit contingency plans for returning to fully remote learning in the event schools are mandated to close by executive order due to a rise in coronavirus infection rates.

In many ways, Oberst said, the contingency plans would enhance what was done last spring, like using such tools as the i-Ready program, Google Classroom and Zoom.

The state also has required that reopening plans be made public and be available for viewing on each school’s website once state approval has been received, Oberst added.

While reopening plans vary by building, each school’s student body will be divided by grade level into cohorts, or groups, to limit interaction between students. Implementation of a cohort model will ensure that students are not in large group settings during such activities as assemblies or playing on the playground.

In addition, the small groups will make it easier to isolate students and staff in the event of a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19 thus helping to avoid the closing of an entire school, Oberst said.

Other key features of each school’s plan are to permit only such authorized people as mail carriers and contractors to visit the building; creating quarantine areas where students who are feeling unwell would be held until parents could pick them up; and establishing a mandatory 72-hour quarantine of students who have possible COVID-19 symptoms unless the school receives authorization from a doctor to allow a student to return earlier.

Another safety measure is the designation of multiple entry points at each building to limit foot traffic and create more distance between students. Safe spaces also will be created to separate students being dropped off by parents from those students who come in by bus. Entrances will be monitored by faculty members charged with taking students’ temperatures and conducting other health checks before admitting them into the building.

Additional precautions include requiring everyone entering the buildings to wear a mask and ensuring that students’ seats in classrooms are spaced six feet apart to maintain social distancing.

To reduce the possibility of cross-contamination of materials and supplies from one student to another, schools also will avoid the sharing of such supplies as crayons and pencils, and reduce the amount of paper being used, Oberst said.

At Rochester’s St. Ambrose Academy foot traffic will be redirected to make stairwells one directional. And teachers of such subjects as music, art and health will visit classrooms to limit the amount of student travel outside of their homerooms, said Christine Deutsch, principal.

Deutsch added that library, cafeteria and playground materials used by students will be immediately disinfected and shelved for three days prior to reuse, and that class sizes will be capped at 18 students for the well-being of everyone.

“We feel really confident in the safety we can provide to each grade level, student and teacher, so we’re moving forward with the mindset of in-person instruction with the safety precautions we have in place,” she said.

Such measures also are helping parents feel reassured about their children returning to school for in-person instruction, said Deutsch, noting that all continuing students from last year have registered to return to school, with the exception of one whose family has expressed concern about resuming in-person instruction.

Even so, “our schools always do a great job of personalizing the learning experience, so I know our teachers and our schools will work to personalize the home-learning plan for the students that opt for that,” Tauzel said.

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