A joyful start to the school year

Catholic schools launch new school year, offer options for families

The start of the 2020-2021 school year for our Catholic schools has proven to be, like the rest of 2020, highly unusual.

Much of the start of the school year is like it always has been; students are excited to put on their uniforms and get back to class, anxious to see their teachers and classmates. Teachers have been working hard to prepare their classrooms and lesson plans to welcome their students back to school.

What is not usual is that students and staff do health screenings before they even leave the house. When they arrive at school, they are now wearing masks, have their temperatures checked, and experience a new set of protocols that have become part of their daily routines, from keeping a six foot distance whenever possible to frequently using hand sanitizer to eating their lunches at their desks instead of shoulder-to-shoulder at a lunch table. It’s all part of a robust, multi-layered plan designed to keep those in our school communities safe from the coronavirus.

While many schools throughout northern Colorado made the decision to launch the school year remotely, the Office of Catholic Schools, in conjunction with an OCS Health Task Force and a panel of health professionals from Centura Health, prayerfully made the decision to start the school year with in-person learning.

Catholic school students returned to in-person learning Aug. 24. In partnership with Centura Health, each school implemented various safety protocols, including temperature checks. (Photos by Carol Nesbitt)

“We know the education and formation of children is best accomplished when it comes in community through direct encounter with one another,” says Elias Moo, Superintendent. “Nothing can fully replace the goodness, beauty and educational experience of being physically together as a school community. We have heard from the Lord the call to be disciples and have been inspired by him to welcome students back to in-school learning and to do so with great regard for the health of our community.”

That decision is also reflected in some of the Root Beliefs established by the Office of Catholic Schools and school administrators including:

We believe that community and human encounter is the best way to form children and allow them to flourish.

We believe that we are Catholic communities of charity and solidarity, called to seek and protect the good, safety, health, and well-being of our children, families, and teachers, especially the most vulnerable in our community (i.e. the elderly or immunocompromised).

Many areas needed to be tweaked and re-tweaked by administrators as the start of the school year approached. Teachers had to re-design their classrooms to provide for lots of spacing between desks. Extra chairs, desks, bookshelves, comfy seating – all of it had to be moved out of the rooms. Some schools moved bigger classes into larger rooms – gymnasiums, cafeterias, conference rooms, even spreading out into spaces at their parishes. Car lines were reconfigured so that temperature checks could be taken before students even left their cars. Hand sanitizer stations and signage with reminders about washing hands and keeping your distance from your friends are now abundantly displayed throughout the schools. New cleaning and regular sanitization routines were established. Principals have called the process “joyful, invigorating and exhausting all at the same time.”

Still, despite all the changes and challenges, administrators, teachers, staff members and families are happy to be back together for in-person learning.

“Students have a level of joy and appreciation for being able to be with their Christ the King family,” says Erich Hoffer, principal at Christ the King Catholic School. “Our students are doing their very best to follow protocols and protect their friends and teachers.  There are some growing pains because it’s hard for young students to distance and not be close to their friends, but we are getting better each and every day.”

“Our first day of school was the most joyful start of school that I have ever experienced,” says Mrs. Tamara Whitehouse, Head of School at Our Lady of Lourdes North. “The students are filled with excitement and life. Parents have expressed their gratitude for this opportunity. Teachers are full of enthusiasm and love for their children.  This has been a beautiful answer to the prayers we have been offering since we closed.”

Students were happy to return to class and see their teachers and friends, despite circumstances not being back to “normal.”

Many parents have articulated to staff members their appreciation for the hard work that went into a return to in-school learning. “We are so grateful to be able to have our children back in school,” says Kate and Mike Azevedo, parents of Addison (5th grade) and Reagan (3rd grade) who attend Christ the King. “The amount of work that the principal, teachers and staff have put into being able to bring the students back safely has been amazing.”

Keeping students safely in school requires everyone to do their part, and principals say families are happily complying. “They have honored this opportunity by being diligent in completing their health screens each and every day, limiting their bubbles to avoid potential exposure, and following school norms in their own homes,” says Hoffer.

Many of our Catholic schools also saw increased inquiries and higher enrollments, as students who were previously in schools that were starting the school year virtually made the switch to one of our schools to take advantage of in-school learning.  A number of schools even had to establish waiting lists at certain grade levels, in part due to additional spacing requirements and in part due to the new students helping to fill their classrooms.

St. Isidore Catholic Curriculum, an online option

For those families not yet comfortable with in-person learning, the Office of Catholic Schools launched a new, fully online program named after St. Isidore, the patron saint of the internet and computers. The K-8 curriculum was offered mainly to families who currently have children enrolled in one of our 34 elementary schools.

Initially, administrators thought that perhaps 80-100 students system-wide would enroll. Now, nearly 500 students have enrolled in the program. Dr. Carla Capstick, former principal at Blessed Sacrament, is St. Isidore’s organizational leader. She says school leaders are thrilled to be able to offer this online option to our families. “Our belief is that the only true education is Catholic education because Catholic education can tend to the formation of the whole person,” says Dr. Capstick. “During these uncertain times, we feel that part of our mission is to provide an online Catholic curriculum option for parents who feel that in-person learning is not possible for their situation.”

One of the beautiful components of this online option, according to Capstick, is that students are receiving their instruction virtually while remaining part of their current Catholic school. “Families are still connected to their home schools and will communicate with them just as they would if their children were in-person.” And, when the time is right for each family, the students can move back into in-person schooling.

The Gerd family enrolled their three children in the St. Isidore Online Curriculum, an online learning option facilitated by the Office of Catholic Schools for those families who are not comfortable with in-person learning.

Parents who chose St. Isidore are grateful for this opportunity to have their children still be a part of our Catholic schools, but receive their education virtually. Mary Jo Gerd and her husband, Eric, have students enrolled at Our Lady of Lourdes, but recently enrolled their three children, Max (8th grade), Charlie (6th grade), and Josie  (4th grade), in St. Isidore. When they heard that the Catholic schools were going to offer an online curriculum option, they were thrilled.

“It was an answer to our prayers because we weren’t ready to go back to in-school learning,” said Mary Jo. “I thought it was such a compassionate response [by the archdiocese] as to how they’re dealing with this crisis. And we wanted to stay connected to our school community – that was so important to us.”

Gerd says they also loved the fact that their decision didn’t mean the kids would have to do distance learning the entire year.

“We love the idea of that when we’re comfortable to return to an actual school, we can seamlessly return; we don’t have to wait a year to go back. Meeting us with such grace and compassion was really profoundly good for our family. Parents having that freedom to make their own decisions about what’s right for their own family or their own domestic church was such a beautiful expression of Christianity.”

Whether our Catholic school students are learning virtually or in person, we are all very grateful to all of our school leaders and personnel who have worked so hard to provide options for families and make it happen in this most unusual school year.

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COMING UP: Banned books: Pushing back against the new ideology

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How would you know if you were being brainwashed? When something plainly false — contrary to common sense and right reason — is so constantly forced on you and you are not allowed to question it, it’s a good indication. This is the nature of ideology: imposing a position without truly establishing it or allowing it to be criticized. We have seen that something clearly opposed to the basics of scientific fact, such as the nature of sex as male and female, can be forced quickly upon American society through the influence of media and public education. And, perhaps not too surprisingly, even something as clear as 2+2=4 has been called into question by progressive educators, such as Dr. Rochelle Gutierrez, turning it into a sign of alleged oppression.  

In our time, dystopian novels have become reality. George Orwell best described the use of ideology in modern political regimes through doublethink, newspeak, and thoughtcrime. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the main character, Winston Smith, is coerced to accept that 2+2=5, showing his allegiance to ideology over reality. Orwell speaks of the way ideology gains power over the mind: “The Party is not interested in the overt act: the thought is all we care about. We do not merely destroy our enemies, we change them.” This domination does not broker any opposition: “It is intolerable . . .  that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be.” If the truth can circulate freely, then ideology will fail.  

You might ask how the acceptance of ideology differs from accepting the mystery of faith, which requires our obedience to God. A key difference is that God’s revelation makes sense even while beyond reason. God does not shut down our thinking but wants us to ask questions and continue to come to know him and his creation throughout our lives. Faith cannot contradict reason because they both come from God, from his gifts of revelation and creation. You know you are facing ideology, however, when it refuses any discussion of contrary views. Catholics have been accused of hate for refusing to go along with the new ideology of human sexuality. This ideology claims to speak truly of the reality of human life, although it doesn’t add up, contradicting itself and the clear facts of science. The fight for the future focuses on speaking the truth. Without the ability to think, discuss, and read freely, it will be hard to respond to the ideological wave overwhelming us. 

Throughout the country, however, great books and humanities programs are being shut down for their emphasis on the Western tradition. Cornell West, an African American philosopher at Harvard, writing with Jeremy Tate, speaks of the spiritual tragedy of one American university closing down its classics department: “Yet today, one of America’s greatest Black institutions, Howard University, is diminishing the light of wisdom and truth that inspired [Frederick] Douglass, [Martin Luther] King and countless other freedom fighters. . . . Academia’s continual campaign to disregard or neglect the classics is a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture.” For West and Tate, cancelling the Western canon shuts down the central conversation of the pursuit of wisdom that touches every culture.  

Canceling the pursuit of wisdom hits at the integrity of our culture itself, as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, another dystopian novel, focused on saving books from the fire set on wiping them out, explains: “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.” Books proved hostile in this all-too-real futuristic American society portrayed by Bradbury, undermining the state of contended distraction provided by an omnipresent virtual reality. The fight for truth necessarily entails the books we read and teach.  

In our current cancel culture, Catholics too are being silenced for speaking about reality. Amazon recently cancelled Ryan T. Anderson, who studied at Princeton and Notre Dame and now directs the Ethics and Public Policy Center, blocking the sale of its book on its platform for questioning transgender ideology. The book, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Movement (Encounter Books, 2018), provides a well-researched and thought-out response to the movement overturning common sense and millennia of acquired wisdom. Even more than that, Anderson shows how we are experimenting on our children, subjecting them to practices of hormone therapy and surgery that have not been proven safe or effective. Anderson provides evidence of ideology at work, through its coercive attempt to force us to accept what contradicts clear scientific evidence: “At the heart of the transgender moment are radical ideas about the human person — in particular, that people are what they claim to be regardless of contrary evidence” (29).  

Anderson does not deny the need to help those who suffer from gender dysphoria, although the heart of the books focuses on whether or not we are willing to accept reality and to help others to do so. As Anderson explains, “determining reality is the heart of the matter, and here too we find contradictions … Is our gender biologically determined and immutable or self-created and changeable? … At the core of the ideology is the radical claim that feelings determine reality. From this idea come extreme demands for society to play along with subjective reality claims. Trans ideologues ignore contrary evidence and competing interests; they disparage alternative practices; and they aim to muffle skeptical voices and shut down disagreement. The movement has to keep patching and shoring up its beliefs, policing the faithful, coercing the heretics and punishing apostates, because as soon as its furious efforts flag for a moment or someone successfully stands up to it, the whole charade is exposed. That’s what happens when your dogmas are so contrary to obvious, basic, everyday truths” (47-48). Not only philosophers like Anderson, but many educators, doctors, scientists, and politicians have been cancelled for standing up to the blatant falsehoods of this ideology. 

Does 2+2=5? Is a man a man and a woman a woman? No matter the effect of hormones and surgeries, every cell in the body points to the biological reality of sex, along with a myriad of other physical and emotional traits. Shutting down study and debate does not get to the heart of the matter, the truth of reality and the way to help those who suffer. The ideology does not truly focus on tolerance of others or creating reasonable accommodations, as it seeks to impose itself and coerce us. The reinterpretation of Title IX manifests an “Orwellian fiat” by which sex discrimination, meant to protect women, now becomes a means to discriminate against them: “The Women’s Liberation Front highlights the strange transformation of Title IX into a means to deny privacy, safety, education opportunity, and equality to women” (190). Anderson’s book provides an essential overview of the goals of the transgender movement and how to respond to it from a philosophical and scientific perspective. We should not allow the book to be cancelled! 

The goal of this new ideology is not simply to accept and tolerate a particular position, but, as Orwell recognized, to change us. It constitutes an attempt to redefine what it means to be a human being and to change the way we think about reality. Anything standing in the way will be cancelled or even burned. The quick success of this movement, and other ideologies as well, should make us pause. Do we want our children to think freely and wisely or simply to conform to what is imposed on them without question?  

As Catholics, we are called to think in conformity with faith and reason, upholding the truth, even when inconvenient. We are called to continue to form our own minds and accept the reality of how God made us and how he calls us into relationship with him, as the true source of overcoming suffering and difficulty. If you are uninformed and unable to judge rightly and logically, you are more likely to become prey to the new ideology, especially as enforced by government control and big business. We need Catholic freedom fighters, those willing, with charity, to stop the burning of the great ideas and the cancelling of our own faith.  

Photo by Fred Kearney on Unsplash